Managing your mental health: Labels aren't always a good thing

Mental health blogger Fiona Kennedy speaks about how labelling your issues can be both a help and a hindrance

I had a conversation with a friend recently on the subject of labels and diagnoses, and it led me to think about something I wrote a couple of years ago about my own labels. I was reluctant to revisit this article, largely due to the fact that my perspective has changed to much since then. I was afraid of who I would see when I read it.

While I now disagree with quite a significant amount of what I understood to be true at that time, I was also pleasantly surprised to see that I was actually on the right track in terms of getting a handle on my mental health, albeit a touch misguided.

This is an excerpt from the article in question:

‘Say you have a sore arm. Really, really sore, you can’t move it, but you don’t bother finding out what might be wrong. You try to carry on as normal, but it’s not working out. What were once simple tasks that you didn’t have to think about suddenly become impossible. Still you ignore it. The pain gets worse and worse, till eventually you’re left with no option but to go see the doctor. Guess what? Your arm is broken, and you’ve done considerably more damage by ignoring the problem. It can be fixed, but it will take time and it may never be the same again because you’ve let it go for too long.

Now apply that same rationale to mental illness, any mental illness. Depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, borderline personality disorder – any of them, or the multitude of other issues that can affect any one of us. The symptoms flare up. You ignore them. You try to keep going but it’s just not possible. Life becomes almost unendurable, functioning is beyond you. Wouldn’t it just have been easier to know what was going on, what to expect, what treatment might help and how to manage the symptoms?

On the right track

I was on the right track with the first paragraph, for sure. Any of the symptoms typically identified with mental illness are real, and they exist for a reason. They need tending to, and no more than the broken bone, they will become more problematic the longer they are ignored. This is a lesson I’ve learned far too many times over the years, and occasionally need reminding of even now.

But the next paragraph? ‘Wouldn’t it just have been easier to know what was going on, what to expect, what treatment might help and how to manage the symptoms?’ Yes and no. If I were to break it down, it would look something like this:

  • Easier to know what was going on? For sure. My mind was desperately trying to tell me there were events in my past that I needed to look at, that there were aspects of how I was living my life that were not working for me, and never would
  • Easier to know what to expect? With hindsight, yes. Get help - the right help - the problems will resolve themselves. Ignore them and they will get worse. End of.
  • Easier to know what treatment might help? Debatable, and depends which side of the mental illness fence you live on. Previously, I would have thought medication to be crucial, and a lifelong part of the management of a chronic illness. Therapy would also have been essential, and potentially lifelong. Experience has taught that the right meds at the right time can be helpful, but the right form of therapy at the right time can have a far greater and more long lasting impact. 
  • Easier to know how to manage the symptoms? No. The symptoms did not need ‘managing’. They needed addressing. Managing implies something that would be an on-going problem. Addressing and resolving the root cause of the symptoms eliminates them entirely.

For a long time, if not happy, I was at least comfortable with my labels, because they made sense of things for me.  I believed they gave me reasons for why I felt as I did.  But they also disempowered me and made me feel like my life would forever revolve around psychiatrists and medication, that who I am and what I felt was out of my control.

Shades of that are still with me. I lived with the firm belief that I was sick for such a long time that even now it sometimes feels beyond me to make and then maintain the changes I know I need.

Are labels a help or a hindrance? 

Did my labels help? Yes, to a point.  They made me acknowledge symptoms like problematic thoughts, beliefs, emotions and lifestyle habits.  But after that they did nothing but hinder me, and convince me that whatever effort I put in was ultimately a waste of time.  There have been many times in the last year when I’ve no doubt a conversation with me would have led to a diagnosis of relapse of depression and/or bpd, and an increase in meds. Those conversations would not have been representative of all of me though.  They would be nothing more than snapshots.  Asking me what’s wrong at that particular point in time, then working with me to make sense of it and fix it would be far more helpful in the long term.

Don’t label me or judge me based on one small glimpse into my life.  Talk to me, help me gain perspective on whatever the issue is, and then let’s move on.