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Does Over-Diagnosing Mental Illness Do More Harm Than Good?



There can be no doubt that many people suffer from genuine mental disorders; the kind that can’t simply be treated in weekly sessions with a psychologist. Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and dissociative identity disorder, for example, need to be treated with medication (with counseling, if desired). But sometimes it seems as though the world has gone a little mad itself, as more people are labeled with mental disorders when all they really have are behavioral problems.

There has always been one major problem when diagnosing mental disorders: the symptoms are subjective and the thresholds that determine a proper ‘diagnosis’ are too vague. They’re about to get vaguer.

The mental health bible

The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is considered mental health’s equivalent of the bible. It’s updated on a semi-regular basis and the latest version is DSM-5. According to Professor Peter Kinderman, head of the Institute of Psychology, Health, and Society at the University of Liverpool, it will lower diagnostic thresholds, which will mean that more people will be categorized as mentally ill. It will also give ordinary behavioral problems mental disorder status (

For example, children will no longer have temper tantrums; they will have disruptive mood dysregulation disorder; overeating will become a binge eating disorder, and internet addiction will be formally recognized as a serious mental problem.

Two reasons why this is could do more harm than good:

1)     It provides an easy-out for people who aren’t willing to take responsibility for their lives. Why should you blame yourself when your child is undisciplined when, clearly, a chemically imbalanced brain is the problem? Why dry diet and exercise when your over-eating is obviously not your fault?

2)     It will increase the number of medicated people in the world. Does the world really need more emotionally numb people who waltz through life popping pills instead of getting to the root of their problems?

The above is not intended to imply that children who throw temper tantrums just need more time on the naughty step, or that over-eaters should staple their stomachs. In many cases, cognitive and behavioral therapy will do wonders for cases such as this.

Instead, the argument is that categorizing certain behaviors as disorders are like putting a plaster cast on a paper cut.

Furthermore, many doctors believe that labeling people increase the stigma attached to mental illness – which directly contradicts the theory that it destigmatizes mental disorders. It can also depersonalize people; once you’ve been diagnosed with depression people treat you as someone with depression and you start identifying more with your condition as a depression sufferer. It becomes self-fulfilling.

Of course, we can’t dismiss genuine problems by telling people to talk about it and walk it off. Medication saves lives and keeps people sane. But, maybe we should take a step back and think about where we’re going as people and as a society before we start lining up for prescriptions.