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Why It’s a Bad Idea to Play Armchair Psychologist

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistJuly 17, 2018
From the WebMD Archives

As public awareness of mental health has grown, so too has the temptation to play armchair psychologist and try to diagnose friends, family members, or even public figures. It’s understandable that we want to know if someone has a psychological condition, and it can be beneficial. For example, we might be better able to help a loved one if we know what they’re experiencing.

At the same time, there are considerable drawbacks to “diagnosing” others with a mental illness.

  • You could be wrong. Accurate diagnosis requires careful evaluation and elimination of other possibilities. For example, we might think a person is withdrawing socially because he’s indifferent to relationships, when in fact he’s paralyzed with fear about what others think of him. Psychiatric diagnosis is complicated, and virtually impossible without interviewing someone directly.
  • Diagnosis can cut off the conversation. While knowing a person’s diagnosis might be informative, it conceals more than it reveals when it glosses over individual differences. Depression is a good example—one person might be depressed secondary to a chronic health condition, while another might battle episodes that arise for no identifiable reason. Placing someone in a category can prevent us from trying to more fully understanding their experience.
  • Mental health diagnosis can be misused. Despite a growing understanding of mental health conditions, widespread stigma remains. Accordingly, psychiatric labels may be weaponized. For example, someone might be annoyed by a person’s attention to detail and brand them with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In contrast, we probably would never use a person’s medical diagnosis as an insult (e.g., “She’s so annoying—I think she has the flu!”).
  • Casual diagnosing can make behavior that is actually normal seem unhealthy. We create an artificial distinction between health and illness when we’re quick to assign psychiatric diagnoses. For example, everyone experiences ups and downs in their mood, but not everyone meets criteria for depression or bipolar disorder. We also risk minimizing the gravity of these devastating conditions.
  • People don’t like it. Perhaps the best reason to avoid informal psychiatric “diagnosis” is that people generally don’t want to be diagnosed by non-professionals, for all the reasons discussed above. 

If you find yourself tempted to diagnosis another person, carefully consider why you’re trying to label their behavior and whether a label is truly necessary. Is the framework of a diagnosis the only way you can understand what the person is going through and identify the help they might need? If not, the risks of “diagnosing” likely outweigh the possible benefits, and it’s probably better to refrain.

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and host of the weekly Think Act Be podcast. He is author of The CBT Deck, Retrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan provides resources for managing stress, anxiety, and other conditions on the Think Act Be website.

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