What is Involved in Making a Diagnosis of Mental Illness?

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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 08 November 2018
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There are a number of different factors that are often involved in making a diagnosis of mental illness. As a general guideline, most diagnoses are made through observation and interaction between a patient and a psychiatric professional, usually a psychologist or psychiatrist. This serves to help the professional better understand a person’s state of mind, witness any types of behavior that may be indicative of a mental illness, and determine how such behavior or attitudes may be negatively impacting the person’s life. There are typically a number of specific criteria that must be met before a diagnosis of mental illness can be made.

A diagnosis of mental illness often relies on a deep understanding of a person by a mental health professional, such as a psychologist. There are a number of different potential criteria that can be used to determine whether someone has a mental illness, and these often stem from four basic symptoms or signs. A person’s behavior is a primary way in which mental illness may be noticeable, as are his or her feelings. Someone’s thoughts are also typically used as an indicator of mental health, and how a person interacts with others is often considered when making a diagnosis.


Behavior, with regard to considering a diagnosis of mental illness, typically refers to the actions a person takes, such as excessive hand washing or an inability to leave one’s home. A person’s feelings usually refers to emotions someone may feel, such as intense fear or panic, elation, or sadness. As long as a person is willing to share his or her thoughts with a mental health professional, then those thoughts may be considered as well, and any unusual thoughts a person may not want to have are often a factor in making a diagnosis of mental illness. A psychologist or psychiatrist may also talk to friends and family of a person to see how someone is interacting with others.

As these various criteria are considered, a mental health professional in the US will typically make a diagnosis of mental illness utilizing the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM). This book compiles various mental illnesses into discrete categories and provides guidance on how a particular illness tends to manifest. A diagnosis of mental illness is typically made by considering the signs a person may have, and using the DSM to see what types of mental illness such symptoms can often indicate. There can, of course, be some overlap among illnesses, and the effectiveness of a psychologist is often dependent on his or her ability to accurately diagnose illnesses.



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