What’s in a label?: Labels are everywhere. We label people by gender, race, sexual orientation, body size, personality, politics, and so on. With every label comes an image, and with this image comes a prescribed set of behaviors. Girls should be polite and follow the rules; boys have lots of energy and sometimes can’t help their unruliness. People with bodies like runway models are beautiful; people with curves need to lose weight. If you cry a lot, you’re a wimp or overly emotional; if you hold back your feelings, you’re in control and rational.
Diagnostic Labels: In the mental health field, as everywhere, labels, or diagnoses, can be useful generalizations, but they can also be harmful stereotypes. Unlike medical diagnoses, psychiatric diagnoses are not as exact or objective, nor are they based on x-ray results or laboratory findings. Psychiatric diagnoses depend instead on clinicians’ interpretations of behaviors and feelings and quite often involve value judgments about what is “normal” and what is not.
Diagnoses may be helpful when they facilitate communication among clinicians and researchers or when they offer some guidelines about how to proceed with treatment. They can be harmful when they are stigmatizing or when they pathologize behaviors or temperaments that simply don’t fit into a culture’s definition of acceptable roles or behaviors, but are not necessarily mental disorders. Because insurance companies require diagnoses in order to cover therapy, our work as psychotherapists often means we are required to diagnose. Our focus in therapy, however, focuses not upon these diagnoses or labels, but on understanding clients’ issues and the possible impact of ineffective or oppressive societal, cultural, familial, or political systems on clients.