I’m sure you’ve heard of the alphabet soup of mental health diagnoses. PTSD, OCD, RAD, SAD, etc. etc. And as a parent, it can be very important to know the answer to, “what’s wrong with my kid?”
Mental vs Medical model
Getting a diagnosis in mental health is a little bit different than a medical diagnosis. This is especially true for young people. In the medical field, something is usually very “wrong” with how the body is operating. A bacteria, a broken bone or an infection are all things that go “wrong” with the body that needs medical intervention to get “fixed”. In youth mental health, it’s a bit more complicated.
Often, the symptoms we see are actually attempts of the mind/body system to adapt to a situation. Kids may be acting out to get control because their environment is out of control. They may be highly anxious because they’re not feeling a sense of safety in their lives. Our mind/body system is designed to adapt to challenges – and sometimes, those attempts at adaptation are not healthy. We call this maladaptive behavior.
Parents often ask me what diagnosis their kid has and what can be done to “fix” it. Some parents get caught up in diagnosis chasing. They bounce from professional to professional, seeking different diagnoses, in the hope that once it’s “correct”, then their child can take a pill or get a specific type of therapy and be cured! Hallelujah! That’s all it took! I just needed the right professional to tell me the right diagnosis!
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Our mental health is a bit more complicated than a medical model. We are a whole system of our biology, neurology, relationships (read attachment), environment etc. All of these parts contribute to how we feel, think and behave in the world.
How I like to operate
I use diagnoses as a fuzzy “guide” for what’s going on with someone. Most insurances need a diagnosis so professionals can bill for a service and, at least within the field of mental health, it’s helpful language to use when discussing client issues. However, the use largely stops there.
I find it far more helpful to discuss systems that contribute to symptoms. What is taking place at home, with relationships, within the mind/body system that contribute to and help to maintain the maladaptive symptoms? What systems can we shift to provide the needs that the individual is attempting to seek in unhealthy ways? If we know what the purpose of the maladaptive behavior is, and can create a system that supports that purpose, the behavior changes.
To say it another way, can we create healthy emotional expression, communication, environments, relationships, exercises and routines that support positive healthy individuals? If so, the diagnosis is inconsequential.
Don’t get too stuck on diagnoses because the treatment is often the same.