Labels and Labeling for Psychological Disorders

Pros and Cons on labels for Psychological Disorders

Labeling is the standard approach in psychiatry and the foundation for psychiatric treatment, and although widespread, is not universally accepted in all professional communities.

Labels aren’t exactly unique to the practice of psychology. Humanity had been labeling items and individuals for decades as a means of simplifying life and communication. Labels make understanding a little easier, even when they’re unwanted labels on a particular group of people.

One of the biggest advantages of using diagnostic labels in the practice of psychology is the label’s ability to convey a large amount of information within it. For example, hearing the term “bipolar disorder” gives anyone familiar with bipolar disorder a good picture of what is going on with the patient, helping both psychologist and patient. Another advantage of using diagnostic labels is in the field of research. Researching into the background of a particular
mental disorder would be nearly impossible to do without a standard by which to choose participants for the study. Without diagnostic labels, it is hard to understand what exactly a psychologist would be looking for when assigning subjects for the study.

However, despite the strong advantages to using diagnostic labels, there are also disadvantages to it. A study by the American Sociological Association on the theory of labeling in mental illness found that “the likelihood of social rejection increases once others gain knowledge of an individual’s status as a mental patient.” Labels can be damaging and hurt the one being labeled, affecting their view of themselves. Mental illness labels stick. Even after a person may have recovered from a serious mental illness, the label may have a long-lasting impact on others’ perceptions of him or her. For example, when someone with mental illness is labeled as “bipolar,” there is that perception that being “bipolar” sums up his or her whole existence. We do not take into consideration the person’s actions (good or bad) because in our minds, our perception on the label he or she has been given is our basis. Even worse, the individual who is labeled often internalizes the tag to the point that they feel that their entire entity is summarized with it.

Labels lead to stigma, a term that refers to shame, and stigmas lead to discrimination. It is common knowledge that it is socially unacceptable to discriminate against people solely based on their race, religion, culture, or appearance. People who have been diagnosed with a mental illness are discriminated. According to a mental health stigma study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, one of the main reasons that mental illness stigmas exists is that people look at mental illness as something that never goes away, but full recovery from mental illness is possible.

Some psychiatrists ignore the fact that labels are considered permanent, especially when it comes to severe mental illnesses. A typical response from a psychiatrist who follows the medical model may be that the patient will always be on medication, and under this model, the psychiatrist is not looking for a way to cure the disorder, so the client can live a healthier and more productive life, rather he or she prescribes powerful and debilitating medications in order to manage and control the client’s illness.

Labeling can have profound effects on people’s determination to overcome mental health disorders. If patients believe that they can successfully overcome a disorder, they are more likely to work very hard to accomplish this goal. We cannot let ourselves be discouraged by labels. We need to fight our way out of a doctor-imposed regimen to help defeat the stigma associated with mental illnesses.


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