Getting Diagnosed: How does it Help & Harm Youth?

by Stars Training Academy   2 Comments

In order for youth and young adults to obtain support and treatment they usually must be diagnosed with a severe mental illness. Many of these young people have already been labelled with a litany of childhood diagnoses such as oppositional/defiant disorder, conduct disorder and ADHD. As they come of age and seek help from the adult systems of care, they must be re-diagnosed with adult psychiatric disorders to remain eligible for services.

What are the potential impacts on youth being diagnosed?

Some youth may describe their diagnosis as having a beneficial impact, while others may find it to be deeply troubling and detrimental to their emerging identity and forward progress. Here are some of the more common reactions:

  • Many young people express a sense of relief for having their problems identified and named.
  • Some youth and their families discuss how their diagnosis reduced or removed much of the shame, blame and confusion in trying to understand their struggles.
  • A percentage of youth may draw considerable comfort in not feeling alone and being able to access support groups where they can share their struggles and coping strategies with others who’ve had similar experiences.

  • Others report an experience of being stigmatized and “othered” for being different.
  • Still other youth may react negatively to being labelled for what’s wrong with them, rather than being seen and understood for what’s happened to them.
  • Many young people may report feeling a heightened sense of hopelessness and foreclosing of their futures upon hearing they have a chronic, life-long brain disease.

Of course, young people may experience a mixture of all the above and they may change over time.

Here are a few recommendations to consider when diagnosing youth:

  1. Devote ample time and repeated opportunities for youth to question, challenge and explore what their given diagnosis means to them, their families and friends. (Note that due to wide power differentials and perceived authority, this is a difficult conversation for most youth to initiate.)
  2. Ensure that diagnosed youth understand that their “diagnosis is not destiny” and does not describe who they are, nor define who they wish to become. Not for a minute.
  3. Emphasize that they are the authors of their unfolding story and that their self-understanding is far more important than any label.
  4. Ultimately, it is the young adult’s prerogative to accept or reject any diagnosis and seek second opinions.

What do you see as the potential helps and harms of diagnoses? Leave a comment below.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Karyn Dresser November 16, 2017 at 9:29 pm

I like the emphases on “diagnoses is not destiny” and moreover add that “diagnoses is not identity”. I have a medical condition, and when it was diagnosed, I became a person with a medical condition that I know I need to manage for the rest of my life – but, I did not become the medical condition. Helping young people to make that distinction for themselves is important; as is helping them learn the resiliency skills they need to manage their condition — and to thrive as a person!


Wayne Munchel November 20, 2017 at 4:51 pm

Good points, Karyn – esp like the diagnoses is not identity. Disagree, however (not surprising) with equating psych diagnoses w/ medical conditions. There’s scant evidence supporting the idea that they are medical conditions (no bio-markers). IMO, youth are “ill-served” by labeling their distress as diseases in the long-term.


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