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Understanding diagnosis – for young people

Information for young people on understanding a mental health diagnosis, and how it may affect you.

This page is also available in Welsh.

What is a diagnosis?

A diagnosis is a way of describing a group of feelings, symptoms or experiences.

Just like getting a diagnosis for a physical health problem, like eczema or diabetes, a health professional can give you a mental health diagnosis based on what you’re experiencing.

For example, if you feel very low, are finding it difficult to get out of bed and are crying a lot of the time, you might be given a diagnosis of depression.

Even though lots of people can have the same diagnosis, they might all experience their condition differently.

This page has information on:

How are mental health problems diagnosed?

A diagnosis can be made by health professionals, like your doctor. They might give you a diagnosis themselves. Or they might send you to a mental health service, like Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).

To make a diagnosis, they might ask you about:

  • the feelings, thoughts and behaviours you’re experiencing
  • how long you've been feeling this way
  • any problems you’re having at home, school or work
  • the impact your feelings and experiences are having on your life
  • your physical health – any changes to your sleep, eating and activity levels.

Some mental health problems are easier to diagnose than others. For example, if you’re experiencing anxiety or depression, your doctor might be able to give you a diagnosis after a couple of appointments.

For other mental health problems, it can take a while to get a diagnosis. You might be asked to see how you feel over a period of time. This is to make sure your doctor understands what you’re experiencing. 

For more information on how to seek help, go to our pages on finding support and talking to a doctor.

"Just because you’ve been diagnosed with an illness doesn’t mean you have to, or will, tick every box."

What happens when I get a diagnosis?

When you get a diagnosis, your doctor or health professional should talk you through what happens next. They should also talk you through the different types of treatments and support you can get.

Getting a diagnosis can feel like a big step. It might help to:

  • Talk to someone – go to our page on opening up for advice on how to talk to friends and family about your mental health. Or you could call Childline for confidential advice.
  • Find out about your condition – see our page on types of mental health problems, or visit YoungMinds for more information on different conditions.
  • Look for places to get support and treatment – see our page on finding support or ask your doctor or health professional for more information.

If you don’t want to, you don’t have to tell anyone about your diagnosis.

Your doctor usually won’t talk to your parents or carers about your diagnosis either – except if they think you or someone else could be in danger.

Why might a diagnosis be helpful?

Getting a diagnosis can sometimes be a good thing. It can help you to:

  • understand your feelings
  • know there is a name for what you’ve been experiencing
  • feel a sense of relief – you’re not the first person to feel like this
  • find more information about your condition
  • find the right support and treatments that are designed to help with your diagnosis
  • explain to others what’s going on
  • connect with others who have similar experiences.

But, even if you don’t have a diagnosis, you can still get help with your symptoms.

"A diagnosis can feel quite scary, but it can make you feel relieved to know you’re not the only one who feels the way you do."

What if I don’t find my diagnosis helpful?

Some people have mixed views about a diagnosis. You might not agree with your diagnosis, or feel like it doesn’t really explain what you’re experiencing. If this is the case, you might find it more helpful to focus on your symptoms instead.

Or, you might think it’s an unhelpful label and worry people will treat you differently because of it.

A diagnosis is one way of explaining what you’re experiencing, but it doesn’t need to define who you are. Your own thoughts and feelings can be just as important in understanding what you're experiencing, and working out how to feel better.

"I wish somebody had been there after my assessments, to tell me that a diagnosis doesn’t define me and that doctors are there to help me."

What if I don’t agree with my diagnosis?

If you don’t agree with your diagnosis, you should speak to your doctor and explain why.

Doctors don’t always have the same ideas about diagnoses and treatment. You can ask to speak to another doctor to see if they think that your diagnosis could be different. This is called getting a 'second opinion'.

You don’t have a legal right to a second opinion. But, if your doctor won’t refer you for a second opinion, you should ask them to explain why. If you’re unhappy with their reasons, you have the right to make a complaint. Sometimes this can be difficult, so you may want to ask a trusted adult to help.

Could I get extra support at school or work?

It’s your choice whether you want to tell your school, college, university or work about your diagnosis. You might find it helpful to tell them so they can understand what you’re going through. They may also be able to offer you some support, like:

  • being there to listen if you need someone to talk to
  • giving you information about support they provide, like a school counsellor or wellbeing service
  • making 'reasonable adjustments' – to help you with the things you find difficult because of your mental health problem.

What are reasonable adjustments?

If your mental health problem makes it difficult for you to do day-to-day things, like going to busy places or travelling on your own, then it could count as a disability. A law called the Equality Act 2010 explains when this might be the case.

If it does count as a disability, you could be entitled to something called 'reasonable adjustments'.

Reasonable adjustments are changes that places like schools, universities and workplaces must make for you if your disability makes it harder for you to do the same things as other people who aren’t disabled.

In school, these could be changes to the physical environment or the support you’re offered. For example, if you have anxiety, you might find loud, busy spaces difficult. So, your school could say that you can leave lessons a few minutes early to avoid busy corridors. They could also provide somewhere quiet and calm for you to spend break and lunchtimes.

You don’t have to have a diagnosis to count as being disabled under the Equality Act. If you’re not sure about whether your mental health problem or diagnosis counts as a disability, you should speak to your doctor. If it doesn’t count as a disability, you can still ask for adjustments, but you don’t have a legal right to them.

"The diagnosis helped at school… my teachers understood if I needed to leave class at certain points to get support from school counselling, or if I was a little late or struggling."

Could my diagnosis affect my future?

Having a diagnosis of a mental health problem shouldn’t mean you can’t go to university or limit the type of job you can do. Unless it’s a very specific job and there’s a very good reason why you can’t do it.

Your experience may even make you a better employee, as you can understand others with similar experiences.

Applying for jobs

When you’re applying for a job, there are only a few situations where an employer can ask you about your mental health, like to find out:

  • if you need reasonable adjustments to the application process
  • if you’ll be able to do important tasks in the role
  • if you can protect national security, like if you were applying for certain jobs in the government
  • if they’re receiving job applications from a wide range of people.

If an employer asks you about your mental health before a job offer is made, and it’s not for a reason we’ve listed, this may be discrimination.

After you’re offered a job, your new employer can ask you about your health. If your new employer takes a job offer back once you’ve told them about your mental health problem, this might also be discrimination.

You can find out more on our page for adults on applying for jobs.

For most courses and jobs, it’s your choice whether you want to tell them about your mental health problem.

Telling your course leaders or employer about your mental health can help them to understand how you’re feeling and plan how they can best support you. You could think about:

  • what helps you to stay mentally well, and what steps you could take if you start to experience poor mental health
  • what your manager or course leader could do to help you to stay mentally well
  • if there are any situations at work, college or university that could bring about poor mental health for you. And if so, what support could be put in place to help manage these situations
  • how experiencing poor mental health might impact on your work
  • if there are any signs they might notice when you're starting to experience poor mental health, and if they do notice any, what they should do.

"I have found it important to ask for help in settings that can give me it. It takes persistence but is worth doing to remove barriers so you can achieve what you want to."

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Go to our main info hub for young people >

This information was published in July 2020. We will revise it in 2023.

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

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