I used to be really big on diagnosing things. I think I’ve even written in the past about how receiving a mental health diagnosis of my own was a very liberating experience. It was like I could finally put a name to my pain, and it provided me a pathway to treatment. That’s what I thought for a long time anyway.

Lately, though, I’ve cooled a little bit on diagnoses. I still believe they have their place, but I’m becoming less and less comfortable with being defined by a label. For me, the label was “dysthymia,” which is now known as persistent depressive disorder. I remember considering a diagnosis of my depression as a blessing at the time, mainly because obtaining a diagnosis often means treatment can truly begin. Today, however, it feels more like a weight or an excuse I use when things aren’t going my way.

Rather than just throwing out the idea of diagnoses altogether, though, I hope I can reframe it somehow. I believe a diagnosis provides a baseline for others to work from. If a counselor can look up the symptoms of persistent depressive disorder, he or she will have a better idea of what I face mentally on a day-to-day basis. A diagnosis can help those in the helping profession from walking into a situation blind, and it can aid in developing treatment plans and strategies for sessions. Ideally, a diagnosis will provide a framework to support therapeutic efforts.

What a diagnosis should not do, however, is become a crutch for the one receiving it. I have blamed my depression for a number of personal failures in my life, some of which was justified and some of which was not. Sometimes I was just plain lazy. Sometimes life was just hard. Sometimes I was just afraid. Could these traits have all sprung from depressive episodes? Sure, but they are also traits which are simply part of the human condition, traits the majority of us would rather overcome whether we suffer from depression or not. In essence, I’m finding myself focusing more on the symptoms than the cause these days.

I have no plans to give up on the practice of issuing diagnoses for clients, but I am also going to let the weight of my own diagnosis begin to fall away. I am not defined by my disorder; I am defined by how I deal with it. That is my new baseline.

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