To diagnose a mental health problem, doctors will look at:
- what symptoms you're experiencing (groupings of certain symptoms suggest different diagnoses)
- how long you've been experiencing these symptoms
- the impact they're having on your life.
To do this they may ask you questions about your mood, thoughts and behaviours – sometimes by using questionnaires or forms. They will base your diagnosis on what you describe. For example, if you tell your doctor you've been experiencing low mood, low energy and a lack of interest in usual activities for more than two weeks, they may give you a diagnosis of depression. If your symptoms change you might find you are given different diagnoses over time.
Having a diagnosis does not necessarily mean that you are unwell right now. You could have a diagnosis of a mental health problem but, at the moment, be able to manage it and function well at work and at home. Equally, you might not have a particular diagnosis, but still be finding things very difficult. Everyone’s experience is different and can change at different times.
Getting the PTSD diagnosis gave me something to work with and find the words to describe what was happening.
Who can diagnose me?
For common problems such as depression and anxiety, your GP may be able to give you a diagnosis after one or two appointments. For less common problems you’ll need to be referred to a mental health specialist (such as a psychiatrist), and they may want to see you over a longer period of time before making a diagnosis.
For information on how to seek help and what you might say to your doctor, see our pages on seeking help for a mental health problem.
After overcoming the initial shock of the diagnosis, it is actually a blessing because now I know what I need to do to get better.
What if I don't find my diagnosis helpful?
Receiving a diagnosis can be a positive experience. You might feel relieved that you can put a name to what's wrong, and it can help you and your doctor discuss what kind of treatment might work best for you.
However, a lot of people, including some doctors and psychiatrists, feel the medical model of diagnosis and treatment is not enough. For example, you might feel that the diagnosis you're given doesn't fully fit your experiences, or that it's simplistic and puts you in a box. Other factors – such as your background, lifestyle and other personal circumstances – may be just as important in understanding what you're experiencing and working out how best to help you feel better.
A diagnosis does not have to shape your entire life, and may come to be a relatively minor part of your identity.
Read Imani's experience of having her diagnosis changed from bipolar disorder to BPD.
Initially I took this diagnosis of BDP as an insult, a criticism of my whole being, but then I began to understand that it is just a diagnosis, an explanation of why I feel as I do.
This information was published in October 2017 – to be revised in 2020. References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information see our page on permissions and licensing.