Indefinite Psychiatric Diagnoses Challenging for Parents

June 15, 2011 Angela McClanahan

It's no secret that psychiatric illness is treated as a whole different animal than "physical" illness. I find myself comparing the two often, usually trying to determine the best way to cope with Bob and his behaviors. Perhaps the most prominent difference (or, in my opinion, at least the most frustrating) is the elusive nature of psychiatric diagnosis. dx1

"I think we'd better pinpoint your fears. If we can find out what you're afraid of, we can label it." - Lucy Van Pelt, A Charlie Brown Christmas

When something is wrong, we seek a diagnosis--a label; a name to attach to that which troubles us. Once we have that label, we can go to our Big Book of Treatment Options, find the label, and thereby know the best way(s) to treat our condition. That label, regardless of how scary it may be, gives us some comfort--knowing our enemy teaches us how to conquer it. Without that knowledge, we're basically fighting blind, shooting into the dark.

Physical illness can most often be diagnosed--labeled--by positive identification through testing. If the line turns pink, you have strep. If certain cells appear in your sample, you have cancer.

There Are No Medical Tests for Mental Illness

Psychiatric illness is not as conclusive. You can't pinpoint BPD or ADHD from a blood sample. There are tests, yes; but the majority of them are subjective. Add in the factors of comorbidity and shared symptoms and you have a recipe for disaster--misdiagnosis and resultant ineffective treatment.

I've probably gone off on this tangent before, but this morning, I started researching "attention-seeking behavior" and ended reading about Borderline Personality Disorder. Like most of the general public, I'm guilty of knowing almost nothing about BPD. But in my review of its typical manifestation, I find it sounds very familiar.

Raising, again, the question--are we treating the right label, or did we go to the wrong chapter of the Big Book?
Bob wasn't diagnosed with bipolar disorder and ADHD based on x-rays. A psychiatrist reviewed his behavior (symptoms) and based on family history (as recounted by his parents) made the determination those labels were the best fit. Were they? Or were they simply based on his interpretation?

Indeed, the more I read about BPD, the more the label fits Bob, even moreso than either bipolar or ADHD. But, again--is that "real" or simply my own interpretation?

It's crazy-making--I can go to the pharmacy and buy a home test to see if my son is smoking pot, but there is no empirical test for psychiatric illness. Methinks the pot-test manufacturing money would be better spent on other things.

APA Reference
McClanahan, A. (2011, June 15). Indefinite Psychiatric Diagnoses Challenging for Parents, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, July 26 from

Author: Angela McClanahan

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