“I’m Bipolar. My mood can go from extremely happy to mad at the world in seconds.”
“I have OCD. I need to have my whole house clean at all times.”
“He has ADHD. He doesn’t listen or pay attention to what anyone says.”
“She has PTSD. She just can’t get over what happened to her as a child.”
The above statements (or similar variations) are responses I so often hear from new clients during an initial therapy appointment when I ask the standard question, “So why are you here today?” It seems that in this era where we are constantly being inundated with information from social media everyone has learned to self-diagnose serious mental health conditions. Don’t get me wrong; I too am often guilty of going to a website and plugging in my symptoms to see what diagnosis is causing my distress/discomfort (Here’s a hint…It’s always the bubonic plague). When we are going through something atypical, our brains want to find rationality to a seemingly irrational situation. A thorough Internet search will inevitably lead us to align with a variety of diagnoses or stories from others who have dealt with similar conditions.
This post is not about dogging on social media and telling you all to stop watching videos about adult ADHD and the mental health issues plaguing Generation X. There is so much valuable content and relatable videos on the Internet, and I strongly encourage my clients to view all of this…AFTER they have been through a thorough mental health assessment and received a definitive diagnosis from a mental health professional.
Here’s the problem with self-diagnosing. Mental health professionals use a book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (currently DSM-5-TR) to look up symptoms clients have reported and arrive at a psychiatric diagnosis. This book contains over 1000 pages of information documenting over 300 diagnoses. So many of the symptoms overlap diagnoses. For example, let’s look at the symptom “difficulty sustaining attention.” It is well-known that inattention is a core symptom of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). If a child was struggling with maintaining focus in school, it would be easy to jump to the diagnosis of ADHD and treat them with stimulant medication. What many may not know is that inattention is also common in individuals who have experienced trauma or are suffering from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). If a mental health professional did not perform a thorough evaluation of symptoms and erroneously gave a diagnosis of ADHD to a child who was suffering from PTSD, it could potentially cause a worsening of symptoms through the use of misaligned treatment and interventions (i.e. stimulant medication to treat inattention causing an increase in trauma-related anxiety, agitation, and irritability).
I believe that my clients know more about themselves (or their children) than anyone else. I always listen to their concerns and attempt to provide answers to their questions. I want them to trust me enough to tell me about the abnormal thoughts and behaviors they are experiencing. As partners in the therapeutic process, it is the client’s job to report symptoms and behaviors and the therapist’s job to put those together into a diagnosis.