What’s In A Label? A Look At The Effects Of Formal Diagnoses On Children

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Phrases like “standing out” and “not fitting in” can come off as a bit corny at times. But all it takes is a quick glance at the past to know that, up until very recently, children who didn’t do too well in school were branded “lazy,” “dumb,” or even “difficult” by their teachers and peers alike. With the growing popularity of psychiatry, children who tend to struggle to get through their everyday life have found not just a safe space to speak their minds but also acceptance to feel comfortable being who they are. This, in turn, has helped in identifying subtle symptoms of certain disorders that hamper learning capabilities, shifting the blame further away from them and on to a specific mental health condition instead. 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) is generally the guide that’s referred to for algorithms and criteria that go towards making a diagnosis. This is done through a “medical model” which involves checking off lists of symptoms. And so children who display hyperactive or inattentive behavior are given the label ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) while nervous children with anxious behavioral patterns may be diagnosed with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder), panic disorder, and so forth. However, the journey to helping children cope with their learning, behavioral, or emotional problems does not stop at the diagnosis. There are caveats to this medical model that often go ignored and the pros and cons of labels need to be addressed in order to provide the best possible support to children struggling to navigate both life and their new diagnoses. 

Diagnosis Encourages Prompt Action, Generates Research, And Offers A Direction For Treatment 

Primarily, diagnosis helps educational institutions and caretakers understand what’s hindering a child’s growth and development, so they can take measures to provide extra assistance and testing accommodations to them. This is especially important considering how most school policies today are geared towards improving test scores, fostering competition, and securing higher graduation rates. Children with psychiatric disorders are often left at a disadvantage since they deal with an extra set of challenges on a daily basis as compared to children who don’t have the said disorders. 

As for researchers, practitioners, and even insurance companies, labels simplify communication which in turn helps professionals focus on the details and available data of a specific disorder to make decisions, discusses best practices, interpret outcomes of various situations, and so forth. An increase in available data also helps develop and establish better access and availability of treatment resources for professionals. It also stresses the need for further research and guides professional training.

Knowledge That Comes With The Label Can Be Both Liberating And Empowering

For parents, labels can serve as a guide to acquiring the right kind of knowledge regarding the condition their child battles every day. This helps them be more sympathetic and effective at handling difficult situations. It can also change their perspective on their child from being “unruly” and a “brat” to just someone who’s different and struggling. 

Most importantly, however, children who often feel alienated due to their condition can feel liberated when they’re finally diagnosed. Since most bear the brunt of being called “lazy,” “stupid,” “slow,” or just “ungrateful,” being able to put a name to what they’re battling can make them feel heard. Instead of blaming themselves for not being able to keep up with other children, they can reattribute their difficulties to their diagnosis.  This can help boost their self-esteem. 

Diagnosis Can Be Oversimplified And Lead To Stigmatization And Lack Of Attention

Diagnostic labels, while useful, might cause people to look at the child as the diagnosis and not an individual while also glossing over any personal characteristics of theirs. This could lead to parents, caretakers, and teachers attending to them only when they show signs of the disorder and entirely ignoring them when they seem to be doing fine. Since children need attention and care as they’re growing up, this selective show of it can hamper their social interactions and their overall wellbeing. It might also keep them from growing and thriving. For instance, teachers who are aware of a child’s challenges might expect less of them and deprive them of proper attention. This could be counterintuitive to the aim of the diagnosis itself and cause the child to not perform well in school. 

In addition to this, regardless of how open schools and peers are to having conversations around mental health, children who are labeled with specific disorders often experience a change in their reputation for the worse. Several report being subjected to negative attitudes from their teachers and peers, with the latter resorting to name-calling, bullying, or ostracization. Labels are also hard to shake off, even if the child has overcome their diagnosis. Being recognized by their diagnosis time and again can cause their self-worth to take a massive hit. 

There’s An Ever-Present Risk Of Misdiagnosis That Often Gets Ignored 

Another common complaint, although not spoken of enough, that most professionals have is that the DSM’s medical model does not leave room for important considerations like past or present stressors, the child’s coping mechanisms, or general personality style. The nature of psychological disorders, their degrees of severity, causes, chronicity, and duration might get overlooked as well. Instead, a checklist with a range of symptoms is used to diagnose a disorder.

This makes misdiagnosis extremely likely since certain external conditions such as lack of proper sleep, personality traits, bad education system, and difficulties at home could also contribute to learning difficulties and other psychiatric conditions. Most importantly,  most disorders that are listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) focus on symptoms of older, fully developed individuals and might not be the best guide to label children. 

This is because children have developing minds that need a more specific, focused approach. At the moment, only a few disorders are defined in relation to a child’s behavior. 

Most Professionals Recognize That Child Psychiatry Is Complex And Treat It As Such

Although the medical model itself can be limiting, professionals recognize that what really counts is the biological, psychological, and social aspects of their patients. Most look at the main relationships, genetics, daily stressors, large life events, and coping style of the child to get a perspective on things before they arrive at a diagnosis. 

The aim of child psychiatry is to identify what kind of help is needed, even if it’s not readily available at the moment. This is why several professionals move away from a simplistic label that will point to a drug on a chemist’s shelf. Solely relying on a medical model can hide several important factors that should be taken into consideration and prolong the struggle for the child. A broader, more commonsense approach is far more effective. 

And the burden of this approach lies not just on the mental health professional, but also the families, counselors, and faculty of the children in question. By taking the time out to explore all the different factors that contribute to the symptoms of the mental health condition, the possibility of recovery increases exponentially. 

Besides this, it’s important to seek professional help if a child is facing unusual difficulties in school and take the necessary precautions to avoid subjecting them to social stigmatization and misdiagnosis.

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