Diagnosis - for good or ill?

Experiencing mental illness can be confusing and distressing. How we think and behave is often misunderstood, judged and this can add to the pain and distress caused both to the sufferer and those around.  For some, being given a diagnosis can be extremely helpful as it gives a name, an explanatory framework, support and treatment options. It saves lives.

Diagnosis can provide access to support organisations for those suffering illness and for carers. A diagnosis may give permission for normal activities; work, responsibilities to be laid aside for a time, it may also give access to financial and other benefits.  Diagnosis enables health care workers to tailor treatment more effectively, to choose appropriate forms of therapy and to guide sufferers as to what to expect from their illness and treatment drawing from scientific research data.

However, as many can testify diagnosis or ‘having a diagnosis’ can have many unwanted effects. World Mental Health Day, Mental Health Awareness Week and other similar events seek to challenge the stigma associated with having a mental health diagnosis. Mental diagnoses in some cultures can affect marriage prospects, job prospects, confidence in areas unrelated to illness. People with mental health diagnoses can be made to feel inferior, ‘unstable’, a liability. Some people become confused about their identity and feel their mental health condition seems to define who they are, and holds them back, and this can be difficult to shake this off and leave behind when it has ceased to be helpful.  Some simply find their diagnosis is a poor fit, and struggle with being put into a category that seems to make them something or someone they simply aren’t. 

As Christians, we also have another place of reference in terms of who we are, how we can understand our feelings, thoughts and behaviours in spiritual terms.  Created, loved and wholly, unconditionally acceptable to God we have nothing to fear or hide. God does not deal in diagnostic categories which after all have a limited and finite usefulness and can embrace us in our confusion, our dysfunction and wherever our broken and imperfect thoughts, behaviours and beliefs may have taken us. Jesus’ acts of compassion and healing often broke into the lives of those whose conditions had caused them to be social outcasts, excluded and judged. How can this inform our attitude to mental illness in our time?

Scripture is full of writings by those experiencing anguish, distress, suffering such that we are not lost for company. Christian writers looking at these issues call for a more compassionate, more holistic view of personhood approaching those who experience distress through disease or stigma and equally for those who care. We are all in this business of life together and all too often our categories build walls rather than bridges. 

As part of a study programme looking at religion and health, I am interested particularly in hearing the voices of those who experience mental illness and how they feel about having a diagnosis. Has it felt helpful or another source of distress.  I am also interested in comments from those who care for those with mental illness. What for you are the issues which arise from ‘diagnoses’?  And how does this sit with faith and fellowship.
It would be great to hear from anyone who has experience of either having a diagnosis. How do you feel about it? A word, a sentence, a paragraph is great.

I am also interested in hearing from those giving or caring for people with diagnoses if you feel able to contribute something. All comments are of great value as we seek to hear the voices of mental illness. Do post below!

Dr. Emma Pierce [do email me if you would rather not post your personal experiences below - emmapierce@doctors.org.uk]

No details will be shared, but your words will form part of a piece of work being done as part of a postgraduate study in the Department of Spirituality, Religion and Health at Durham University
Dr Emma Pierce, 17/02/2014