Go Ahead, Label Me

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By Elizabeth Barnett

I have always liked labels. I literally like to label all of the plastic storage bins in my apartment, I appreciate placing labels on file folders, and I love when I do something that requires me to wear a name badge. Categorizing things is fun for me.

So when I was 15 years old and finally could label the pain I had been having as bipolar disorder, I was relieved. It was nice to be able to have the comfort in knowing my pain was real and that it had a name. When I was told I had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it felt nice to be recognized for all I had endured. And when I was given the title of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), it made me want to label more plastic storage bins and proudly announce to the world that I officially needed to do so.

It has probably made my treatment and recovery process easier that I have adapted well to my labels. But my labels aren’t what make me who I am or how I experience my mental health or lack thereof. My labels just give my treatment team an idea of where I fall on the spectrum and help them to decide various strategies for recovery.

I completely agree with Dr. Maisel in his piece on the Psychology Today blog. In his post he discusses the various labels given to those of us who receive treatment and have recovery plans. The label of “client” or “patient” is really just a way to classify the person receiving the treatment versus the person giving it but it doesn’t exactly alter the actual treatment.

Just in the way that those terms do not alter what actually occurs in treatment, I think similarly the diagnosis itself can sometimes stand in the way of the treatment. As an example, one of the most effective forms of treatment I have had is dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). This form of therapy was often used for people with the label of borderline personality disorder (BPD). My primary diagnosis is bipolar, so it took me several therapists and treatment programs before one had the idea to have me use The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook. This form of therapy has really helped me in many ways, and I wish we had discovered it earlier.

Previously my therapists had walked me through The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for depression, which was quite relevant at the time, but because my diagnosis was bipolar I believe DBT was not the first form of treatment to come to mind since it had previously been recommended for people with BPD vs. bipolar. Both workbooks and treatment programs were helpful. Both have given me strategies to cope with life.

My labels have probably helped my psychiatrists over the years to have an idea of what medications to prescribe. Compared to other people who experience mental health struggles, I believe my medication changes have been minimal overall. But if I were to have needed to change my medication more than I have, I believe my diagnoses would assist the doctors in determining the best medication for my condition.

So my labels of bipolar, PTSD, and OCD are relevant in that they have helped my various treatment team members over the years determine what might be appropriate treatment, but they do not define me. They are relevant, but they are not the star of the show. They simply provide a diagnosis that helps a team of people, including myself, to determine the next steps for progressing towards or maintaining recovery. Even if my diagnosis changed, the end goal is the same: remission and recovery.

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