There are pros and cons to mental health diagnosis. What does it mean for your child?
From the time they arrive in to our lives, we cannot help but compare our children – How much did he weigh? How much does she sleep? Are you able to put yours down easily? Is she saying much yet?
If your child’s behaviour starts to seem quite different from his or her peers, you may start to wonder if there is “something wrong with them.” While children develop at different rates, a clinical assessment from a professional and possibly some early intervention can be really helpful.
As children get older, the question of a mental health diagnosis may come up either from parents seeking out information or at the suggestion of school or a relative. Sometimes a child or adolescent who has been progressing fine suddenly becomes very angry, sad, or worried all the time. What are the pros and cons of having your child assessed for a mental health diagnosis?
Mental health diagnoses differ from many physical health diagnoses in that there is no definitive test (e.g. blood test, brain scan etc.) to detect whether someone has a mental health disorder. Mental health diagnoses are made based on clinical interviews, observations, often rating scales and sometimes tasks and tests the child is asked to complete.
Depending on the country you are in and the provider you see, you will be more or less likely to be given a diagnosis. For example, in the United States, any client who is being billed through insurance requires a diagnosis in order for the insurer to agree to pay. In the United Kingdom and Canada, diagnosis is often not needed to access therapy.
Criteria for mental health diagnoses are developed based on research findings, and discussion and consensus amongst professionals in the field. Despite this there can be overlap between different diagnoses and every diagnosis that is made is based at least in part on the professional’s opinion. The criteria for mental health diagnoses get updated periodically. During these updates, criteria may change and some diagnoses may be eliminated all together.
Mental health diagnoses can be presented as fixed parts of a person but it is important to consider that things change over time and a mental health diagnosis is not always a diagnosis for life.
Pros of mental health diagnosis:
- It gives access to specialized services.
- It gives a name to the problem.
- Giving it a name means someone has seen it before and you are not alone.
- It gives a shared language for professionals and people experiencing similar problems.
- Having a name for it may help you explain it to others.
- A diagnosis can link to specific interventions.
- The problem becomes the illness, rather than the child.
Cons to mental health diagnosis:
- There are differences in clinical assessment and one professional may provide a diagnosis that another disagrees with. This can get confusing or lead to someone having multiple diagnoses.
- There can be stigma associated with mental health diagnoses.
- Parents or young people may over identify with an illness model. This may reinforce the problem e.g. parents do not encourage an anxious child to try new things.
- A diagnosis puts an emphasis on the problem being in the child/person and is less likely to take in to account other factors e.g. family and peer interactions.
- Mental health diagnoses are a Western explanation and discount other cultural explanations.
What are the alternatives to mental health diagnosis?
Mental health professionals may work to understand the problem in the child or young person’s family, social and educational context without necessarily feeling the need to give a formal diagnosis. They may look at what, if anything is reinforcing the problem? Is the child gaining anything from it? How does the child’s interactions with others effect the problem? Clinical interventions and strategies can be used with both parents and children without the need for a formal diagnosis.
What to do if you are concerned about your child
Some mental health professionals (psychologists, social workers, family therapists, psychiatrists, developmental assessment teams etc.) take direct referrals and others require a referral from another professional (most typically the child’s doctor). In general, you are more likely to need a referral to access public services and can access private services directly.
If you are concerned about your child, a good starting point is to speak to your child’s doctor. Your child’s school may also know about mental health resources in your area.
Professional organisations e.g. a state or province psychological association, often have a search engine to find providers, some of who may not require a referral from another professional.