All about Mental Health Diagnoses
with Dr. Valerie Jacques
Written by: Isabel Ng
With more than 20 years of experience, consultant clinical psychologist Dr Valerie Jacques is undoubtedly the right person to talk to about all things mental health. Not only does she provide therapy to individuals, but she also works with multinational organisations and actively participates in educational talks. Attributing to our shared belief in the importance of aiding the growth of the next generation, Dr Valerie shares with us her thoughts on self-diagnosis, diagnostic labelling, and getting professional help.
Dr. Valerie Jacques
Q: With the Internet being a source of information but also misinformation, people have started self-diagnosing themselves with mental health disorders. Could you share regarding the harms of self-diagnosis?
Dr Valerie: Yes, many people are quick to self-diagnose as well as to label one another. As much as information about signs and symptoms is helpful and gives a person some ideas or understanding about themselves, it is always best to talk with a clinical psychologist who is trained in the assessment of mental illness and personality pathology. We all have traits or characteristics that are common. These traits are more extreme for some and less for others. Just because a person has a trait does not mean the person has an illness or disorder. Self-diagnosis can end up in errors in interpretation and misunderstanding, so it is always best to check with a professional.
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Q: During the health event, you shared that there is a strong medical model for psychological treatment that results in patients very quickly getting a diagnostic label. Do you think that the model causes more bad than good?
Dr Valerie: The medical model leads to many being stuck in a stigma of mental illness and it encourages medication. The model is not good or bad. It just leans towards one perspective of a person and the difficult situation they might be facing. The human body and brain especially are the most adaptable part of our being. When they show certain signs, these are clues that something has tipped the balance in our lives. The challenge with a quick diagnosis is that the focus is on the individual being defective or ill, rather than the system we live in being too overwhelming that if and when adjusted will help the individual cope better.
Q: Do you believe that people with mental health issues should seek out counsellors before talking to a psychiatrist? Should seeing a psychiatrist be their last resort?
Dr Valerie: Yes, I do. I believe that when there is a problematic situation, people need to seek out counsellors. If it requires more in-depth assessment then see a clinical psychologist and if assessed to require medication then only refer to a psychiatrist. In most western countries, people see their GP doctor who then refers to counsellors or psychologists who then if medication is required, refer to a psychiatrist. I won’t say seeing a psychiatrist is a last resort but I’d say that we need to take things one step at a time.
Q: How do you think that children should approach the topic of wanting to get professional help from their parents?
Dr Valerie: I think that parents need to learn to observe and understand their children better so that they can reach out for help faster. For children to approach the topic of professional help, the communication channels need to be good between parents and children. If not, the child can speak to the teacher who can then call in the parents or speak to a relative if more comfortable.
Q: Are there other reasons for people to want to get a diagnostic label aside from medical purposes?
Dr Valerie: Many people who are not sure why they feel the way they feel come in asking for a diagnostic label because they believe it will tell them something about themselves.
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Q: How big of a role does labelling play in preventing people from reaching out for professional help?
Dr Valerie: I don't think labelling prevents people from reaching out for help. Perhaps studies need to be looked at to identify the factors that prevent people from reaching out. I guess denial is a bigger factor and keeping secrets in a family is also a big factor that encourages people to wear masks in self-presentation and pretend that they are fine when they are not. Another factor is that people do not speak up when they observe something wrong. Perhaps they feel like they should not interfere and mind their own business or are afraid it might lead to conflict.
Q: Do you think that diagnostic labels cause self-stigma and expectations to act a certain way?
Dr Valerie: Sometimes I think that labels give people reasons to continue behaviour that limits them, and they are resigned to the fact they are not able to do better when they might actually have the potential for greater things.
Q: How can a patient stop their mental health diagnosis from defining who they are (and controlling their lives)?
Dr Valerie: Work with a professional who does not focus on the diagnosis but treats you as a person who wants to grow in life.