There Is a Person Behind Every Label: Watch Out for the Diagnosis Trap

There Is a Person Behind Every Label: Watch Out for the Diagnosis Trap by Jeff ZimmermanIn any context, a mental health diagnosis is a serious, meaningful term that should not be taken lightly, and should only be made by a mental health professional who has personally assessed the client and is trained to diagnose the condition at hand. Although diagnoses are often casually offered colloquially as labels, careful assessment and expertise are truly required in order to make an official diagnosis.

Diagnoses describe specific traits, symptoms, and behaviors—but they are also quite general. The same diagnosis doesn’t categorically translate to the same behavior patterns across individuals. For example, if we compare two individuals with depression, the depression could impact job function in one person’s life, but not the other’s. The term “depression” could also signify a wide variance in acuity and even risk of injury. It also could refer to one of a number of different actual diagnoses.

When it comes to divorce, a diagnosis does not necessarily provide useful, predictive information related to certain areas of function. It does not in and of itself speak to the ability to be an involved parent, make informed decisions about the divorce, or manage one’s life going forward.

In a divorce mediation context, a diagnosis could additionally be viewed as:

  • Pejorative (an attack or negative label);
  • Criticism (used as ammunition against the person who has been diagnosed); or
  • Judgment (a negative view of the client held by the divorce professional).

For divorce professionals, a particular diagnosis may provoke our own emotional reaction or other connotations based on our own history, past experiences with similarly diagnosed individuals, or even what has been portrayed in the media. The reliance on the diagnosis and its implications can at times limit one’s ability (especially if you’re not a mental health professional) to see the full scope of the client.

Focus On the Person, Not the Diagnosis

It is much more useful to focus on the behaviors, feelings, experience, concerns, and priorities of the client—rather than the diagnosis. The professional’s goal should be to determine how best to respond to the client during a very difficult and stressful time.

One way to do this is understand that the same behavior or trait can simultaneously be a strength and a challenge. For example:

A client who displays compulsive behaviors (which may lead one to suspect Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) may scrutinize every single word in the divorce agreement and ask, “Why did you say and instead of also?” or “Shouldn’t there be a comma there?” In this instance, this type of compulsivity could greatly interfere with the mediation process and even frustrate the mediator.

On the other hand, the same compulsivity could be a distinct benefit when preparing a financial affidavit, as such a client might be very likely to provide highly accurate information.

The same compulsive tendency was useful in one scenario, but not the other.

Utilize the Help of a Mental Health Professional

Another useful option is to enlist the assistance of a mental health professional who may be able to help the client (and you) get a better understanding of what is fueling the behavior. By getting to the crux of the issue behind a particular behavior or trait, we have a better chance of solving it. For example:

A client displays compulsivity about not having enough money on the other side of the divorce. The professional’s response should vary depending if it is determined the client is, “…afraid I’m not going to have enough money to meet my routine needs,” or the client is, “…afraid I’m being taken advantage of.”

Delving underneath the surface and understanding (not guessing) what is driving the behavior is incredibly important; as opposed to pejoratively labeling the behavior as a sign of a psychiatric disorder with an eye roll that translates to “Oh, please.” If the latter occurs, the client will feel the professional’s disinterest (or disdain) and likely become defensive, escalating the confrontation and interrupting progress. Truly understanding what is fueling the behavior of each client can help get to resolution.

My Divorce Recovery can assist divorce professionals with challenging clients. Please contact us with any questions.

My Divorce Recovery

Jeffrey Zimmerman, Ph.D., ABPP

Lauren Behrman, Ph.D.