What Does Having a Mental Health Condition Really Mean?

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Written by Katie Wang.

We talk a lot about mental health conditions on this blog. We have featured personal essays from people who live with mental health conditions as well as tips on supporting loved ones who experience mental health conditions. All this information might make you wonder, “What does it really mean to be diagnosed with a mental health condition?” Given that we all feel sad and anxious from time to time, how does one know when such feelings become problematic and fall into the realm of psychopathology?

The answer to this question is a lot more complicated than you might think. The reality is that there is a fine line between normal ups and downs of everyday life and symptoms of some of the most common mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. Whereas doctors can often rely on medical tests, such as blood work and X-rays, to diagnose physical illnesses, mental health professionals do not have such objective instruments at their disposal. Rather, they have to rely on a careful assessment of each patient’s behaviors, along with a set of diagnostic criteria set forth by the American Psychiatric Association. With each individual who seeks professional help, psychotherapists look for signs of significant distress and suffering as well as difficulties in daily functioning by asking questions about how the patient feels, thinks, and behaves. They then make a diagnosis based on this information, which is then used to guide treatment.

So what does this complex reality mean for you? First, it means that you should never hesitate to ask for help, even if you are not sure that you actually need it. If you are often sad or anxious and if these feelings are making it hard for you to concentrate, have fun with friends, or simply be yourself, reach out to someone. Allow yourself the opportunity to work with a counselor or therapist to determine what kind of treatment might help. Deciding whether one has a mental health condition requires years of professional training; you are certainly not expected to figure it out on your own. Second, when you are working with a therapist, it is essential to be honest with him or her. The therapist can only assess your mental health based on the information you provide, so being honest is necessary to ensure that you are benefiting fully from your time in therapy. Lastly, and most importantly, remember that being diagnosed with a mental health condition does not mean that there is anything inherently wrong with you; it does not separate you from those who are “normal”. It simply means that you are struggling with feelings and behaviors that make you feel miserable and keep you from accomplishing everything that you are capable of accomplishing. It means that you might need a bit of extra support, such as psychotherapy and medication. And most of all, it means that you deserve compassion and understanding, both from yourself and others.

In honor of Mental Health Month, we will be featuring a series of blog posts dispelling common myths and stereotypes surrounding different mental health conditions. Awareness is the first step toward acceptance and understanding. Learning what being diagnosed with a mental health condition does and does not mean is a good place to start.

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