How to Discuss a Diagnosis: Impact of Labels

Labels can alter our perceptions and attitudes by imposing preconceptions onto our beliefs. When our kids are in treatment for mental health or addiction, our doctors, therapists, or psychiatrists might need to give a diagnosis to continue or recommend treatment. Our kids might start to think of themselves as the diagnosis instead of having a diagnosis. Remember that a diagnosis is a treatable condition. When your kid goes to the doctor and is diagnosed with the flu, you do not consider your kid “the flu.” They have the flu and are now taking the steps that they need to return to good health. 

Mental health diagnoses are the same. They inform a treatment strategy that leads to health and healing. Our kids might have several approaches in their treatment, much like a physical ailment. A diagnosis tells what treatment pathways are available to take. A diagnosis helps our child get started in treatment. They can utilize some of the successful approaches others have used in the past. They do not need to let this label define themselves. We can teach our kids to rethink how they receive a diagnosis and how they look at it. Our kids might also need to discuss with others how they would like their diagnosis to be addressed. 

The Impact of Language

When our kids get a diagnosis or when we think of other people’s diagnoses, we can rethink our language around it. The language that we use can impact our perception of our kids or influence how our kids see themselves. We can start referring to the diagnosis as an issue that the person struggles with or is actively treating. For example,

  • “He is an addict” changes to “he has an addiction.” 
  • “She is a borderline” changes to “she lives with borderline personality disorder.”
  • “He is schizophrenic” changes to “he has schizophrenia.”
  • “She is bipolar” changes to “she is treating her bipolar depression.”

When we discuss our kid’s diagnosis as a condition or something that they have, our kids cannot fully integrate this into their identity. When they separate the diagnosis from their core self, they can see it as a problem to be solved. Many things define our kids, and while their diagnosis may impact their personalities or the experiences they have, our kids are more than that. They have many traits, flaws, issues, quirks, talents, and other elements that create the unique person they are. No one else in this world shares the same experience and perspective as they do, and we can remind our kids of how special they are!

Stigma and Treatment

If we allow the label to define our kids, they might feel like they cannot get better or that they are hopeless and unable to thrive with the label. Stigmas surrounding addiction and mental health can be a barrier to treatment. People fear having a label get “stuck” with them for life. They might not begin treatment just to avoid the label. By changing the way we speak about these things, we can reduce the stigma and help those in the shadows break out into the light. People may needlessly continue to suffer due to worrying about what others may think of their diagnosis. They might even have negative perceptions themselves and deny the problem. By changing the language and talking about mental health issues as things that people “have” or “experiences people go through,” we can help to minimize the impact of stigma for others reluctant to seek help.

Self-Labels Within a Recovery Group

Sometimes, however, people find labels helpful while in recovery, in therapy, or during groups. For example, many 12-step programs begin with an admission like, “I’m an alcoholic.” Each person is different in their approach to using labels. Within an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, the label might be a way of expressing solidarity within the group. Aaron Huey and Von Gilmore discuss this nuance further in the podcast “You Are Not Your Diagnosis” on “Beyond Risk and Back.” Ultimately, our kids need to be comfortable with how they address their diagnosis and might need to discuss how they would like language to be used within their support network.

Language and self-talk can have a surprising impact on self-identity. Our kids might start to shape our perceptions of things based upon preconceptions or negativity associated with mental health issues. Remind your kids that they are not their diagnosis. Their diagnosis is a means of helping them to seek treatment and find success in recovery. Our kids can separate themselves from their diagnosis by recognizing that this is something that they have and not something that they are. You can inspire and help others by changing the language around mental health and recovery.

The language that we use can shape our perceptions of the world and ourselves. When our kids are diagnosed with a mental health issue, we might feel like this label will define everything about them. They might have negative preconceptions about mental health or addiction that are now fueling negative thoughts about themselves as they come to terms with their diagnosis. We can change the way our kids view their diagnosis by recognizing it for what it is: a medical term that informs treatment decisions. Our kids are not their diagnosis. Instead, their diagnosis is something that they have, something being treated, and something they are thriving with. Addiction and mental health can be challenging to treat. Your family is not alone! Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center can help kids with their recovery and provides resources for family support. Call us today at (303) 443-3343. We’re here to help your family’s fire burn brightest!

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