Three Good Reasons to Avoid Mental Health Labels. You Are Not Your Illness.


The day my doctor told me I had Generalized Anxiety Disorder, was the day I internalized the label of “anxious”.  As I got busy adopting the belief that I was damaged goods, I became less of myself and my recovery became indefinitely elusive.

Here are three reasons to avoid mental health labels when you have an anxiety disorder.

  1. Labels Can Lead to the Self Fulfilling Prophecy 
  2. Labels Allow Individuals See Their Behaviour as Immutable 
  3. Labels Can Obfuscate Better Treatment Options

Labels and the Self Fulfilling Prophecy 

In the article; No more psychiatric labels: Why formal psychiatric diagnostic systems should be abolished, Dr. Sami Timimi, Professor and Psychiatrist at the National Health Service in the UK, explores the dangers of labelling in mental health.

His basic premise; using mental health labels (medical-model diagnosis model) can “bring expectations of a gloomy outlook with lifelong dependency on psychiatric treatment and reduced chances of a good recovery.”

Based on my experience, I agree with him.

The article points out that one of the problems with the medical-model diagnosis approach is that patients start to see their conditions as “genetic and lifelong” in nature. 

They believe their problems are permanent and they can expect, only at best, to gain some control of their symptoms, that’s it.

This is what I believed many years ago and I know it continues to happen to others. Almost instantly after my doctor told me I was “mentally ill”, I resigned myself to a life of shame and symptom management. 

Prophecy fulfilled. I became what I believed I was.

I became my disorder and in a short amount of time, it coloured every part of my life.

It never occured to me that my doctor was wrong or that my anxiety disorder was something that could be fixed and was an actual symptom in and of itself. 

Her white coat was the boss of me.

So, not only did I believe there was something very, very wrong with me, I also believed there was no hope of recovering and feeling like myself again.

Labels Allow Individuals to See Their Behaviour as Immutable 

Along with lost hope, came a strange sense of relief. Getting diagnosed with something and told there was nothing I could do but pop a pill everyday really let me off the hook.. 

I didn’t have to worry anymore. I didn’t have to try anymore. 

Like most people with mental health issues, I was tired of trying. Tired of nailing eggs to the wall in my attempts to find a solution.

What I’ve since learned is that no matter how difficult a situation may be, we are responsible for solving it to the best of our ability.

It is our responsibility to discover the real cause of our disorder and fix ourselves. Symptom management is not “the best of our OR our doctor’s ability.”

Going to the doctor and getting placed directly on a mind-altering drug with no other treatment in place is not taking responsibility for your issue. 

We can do better. Way better.

Labels Can Obfuscate Better Treatment Options

Diagnostic Labels for Mental Health Conditions are Not Always Useful, by Bhismadev Chakrabarti, Professor of Neuroscience & Mental Health at the University of Reading, is a great article explaining Precision Psychiatry and how it replaces “one size fits all” interventions.

He writes; “From a treatment point of view, knowing the diagnostic label alone is hardly ever enough information to decide the best course of action. For example, a person with a diagnosis of ASD might have significant sensory issues, while another might struggle more with language.

These two people will benefit from very different interventions.

It’s not an overstatement to say there is no one-size-fits-all intervention for any mental health diagnostic label.So the usefulness of a diagnostic label for choosing the right treatment is limited.”

He mentions that the “inherent lack of precision” in diagnosing mental illness is problematic and a more personalized approach would be of more use.

“Precision Psychiatry” seeks to consider the total background of an individual when they experience symptoms. Things like genetics, social and cultural circumstances are taken into account when looking for solutions.

Imagine that.

An approach to solving anxiety that considers everything that is going on in your life. 

Sure, this approach will take more time and resources on the part of your doctor (and yourself), but is a far better alternative than receiving a quick, unsupported medical model diagnosis (label).

In my own case, my doctor prescribed a psychiatric medication based on a very brief question and answer with me. That was it.

There was no consideration for my individual circumstances or medical testing for underlying problems. Just straight to the drug, with instructions to take it indefinitely.

I am 100% certain that my doctor could have recommended a treatment that would have actually helped me. She chose to take the easy way out and caused me great harm in the process.

It’s far more important to know what person the disease has than what disease the person has. – Hippocrates

Why do People Embrace Labels?

For me, receiving the anxiety disorder label was actually a great relief. 

I’d been struggling for so long to figure out what was “wrong” with me, having an official “answer” and holding took the load off.

Someone else took on the responsibility of “fixing” me.

In addition to the relief factor, being labelled can create a sense of belonging within a community. When you feel isolated from others by the rigors of an anxiety disorder, this can be a most welcomed outcome. 

Feeling sheltered and receiving support through a disorder is a wonderful thing. As long as the shelter doesn’t keep you from living a full, recovered life.

It’s tempting to seek life long membership in the disorder club, especially when popular celebrities and influencers are attaching their names to their own mental illnesses. 

In a more practical vein, diagnostic labels can act as a way to access public services. Many support systems are only available to those with a medical diagnosis. Things like disability payments, prescription drugs and workplace accommodations are all easier to obtain with an official label.

Why do Professionals Label Us?

Check out this beautifully written explanation, from psychologytoday.com. It’s written by  Dr. Marty Nemko Ph.D. and it’s called: Against Personality and Mental Health Labels. Typologies can impose more liabilities than benefits. 

The article describes how labels can be seductive for both patients and mental health professionals (SEDUCTIVE!) and that they give the professionals an easy route to diagnosis and patients the strange comfort of believing their situation is beyond their control. 

I read that as a way out of doing work for both doctor and patient. What’s more seductive than that?!

Sure, it makes for an easier time diagnosing but does reducing everyone and their symptoms into a narrow category really help anyone? Nemko doesn’t think so. 

“You might learn more about your personality by reviewing your life and finding threads in how you’ve spent your time, what have been your greatest accomplishments and failures, your times of greatest and least contentment. 

Doing that would use much more of your life’s data, information that’s closer to who you really are, than in answering a set of questions generated to apply to the masses.”

How Does One Avoid Mental Health Labelling? 

Use the Right Words. 

The chart below from the American Psychiatric Association is a good place to start reframing your thoughts and words around mental illness. 

Are You a Labeller?

If you are, try asking yourself these questions:

  • Does owning a label give your “condition” gravitas? 
  • Does it attract attention to you? 
  • Does it make you feel heard and important? Nurtured?
  • Does it give you the official right to belong in the hole you’re in? 
  • Does it provide an excuse not to work on a solution to your problem? 

Did you answer yes to any of those? 

If so, I’d say you have some other issues that need addressing (self-worth, self-esteem, confidence) and no wonder you have anxiety! 

I answered YES to all of those questions. For many, many years – yes.. 

For most of my adult life I hid sullenly under labels. As soon as I started experiencing feelings of excessive anxiety, I clung to the labels that society (and the doctor) gave me. 

I used them as religiously as I took my “anti-depressants”. I used them as a reason to wallow.

Realize that An Anxiety Disorder is Not Who You Are.

If you internalize something, you become too damn close to it. And if you’re too damn close to it, you can’t see it. If you can’t see it, you can’t figure out what it is and why you have it.

I should add here that I’m not saying all labelling is bad. It definitely has its place. I understand that in some extreme cases it can be life-saving. 

Society seems to be in the midst of a labelling epidemic and most people overuse labels and are too quick to accept the limitations they bring.

I think that because anxiety feels so terrible, people need to apply a “medical label” to enforce just how terrible it is. 

Removing the label (even if just from your own mind) does not mean disregarding the severe, soul crushing effects of anxiety. It means taking the first step in removing its power and giving yourself some breathing space. You and your condition are not one in the same.

If you have been “officially” diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, please do not let this symptom creep in and define who you are. 

Don’t forget that the goal here is to find out the cause of the anxiety, pay attention to what it’s showing us and then show it the door. 

We don’t need to give it our permission to swallow us whole. It tries to do that well enough on its own.

So please, stop selling yourself short. You are probably an awesome person who deserves more than a shitty mental health label. 

We are people with varied, rich and unique life-histories. People that, if you think about it, are actually fortunate in that our minds and bodies are trying to alert and free us from a deeper ailment. 

We all deserve to be whatever we want, and no one wants to be “anxious”.

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