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Why diagnosing at a distance doesn’t help (and what to do instead)

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When it comes to mental health, we all tend to diagnose people from a distance from time to time.

It doesn't necessarily come from a bad place. Sometimes it comes from a place of curiosity, empathy, or thinking you can help another human being out by sharing what you've observed about their behaviour.

After all, it can be hard to speak up about mental health struggles, so when you notice someone showing what you believe to be symptoms of a mental illness, it's natural to want to evaluate their psychological wellbeing.

The problem is, armchair analysis is rarely - if ever - helpful. It's almost as dangerous as self-diagnosis... and who hasn't convinced themselves they have an entire spectrum of personality disorders after reading clinical assessment criteria online? Problem is, it's just as unreliable.

If you suspect someone you care about has a mental illness or personality disorder that they may not be coping with or dealing with in a constructive manner, here are five helpful actions you can take instead of diagnosing them at a distance.

How to help

  1. Encourage them to share how they're feeling with you by saying or messaging something simple like, "I've noticed that you haven't seemed like yourself lately and want you to know I'm here to listen if you want or need to talk. Are you doing okay?"

  2. Accept that they may not want to talk about their situation to you or may even be in denial about what they're going through. That's okay - there's still value to be found in asking. It may mean the world to them that someone has noticed they're struggling, even if they don't immediately show it. Ultimately, it's only people not asking that's likely to do someone experiencing mental ill health any harm or reinforce feelings of worthlessness, resentment or invisibility.

  3. Encourage them to see a mental health professional. Psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health professionals have years of training and experience under their belts. Finding the right therapist can be a challenge for people living with mental illness but it's not an insurmountable one. The process is often compared to dating, and it starts with a visit to a GP, so support the person you know who may be experiencing a tough time to make that initial appointment.

  4. If it's a person in the public eye, recognise that even if they're in the grips of a personality disorder or mental illness, it's not up to you to pass judgment on their mental state. Politicians are often called 'crazy' or decreed mentally unsound when they're exhibiting what could be more accurately referred to as 'moral failings'. For example, when Donald Trump became President of the United States, many people jumped to diagnose him from afar with various personality disorders. The problem is, doing this not only detracts from the value of expertise, it stigmatises both the person involved and anyone else living with that psychiatric condition.

  5. Wherever possible, ensure that the person you're concerned about has a solid support base by alerting any friends, family members or acquaintances you may have in common to the fact that you're concerned they may be experiencing mental health issues and believe they could use a little extra love and support. You don't have to go into specific details or offer an armchair diagnosis, just encourage them to check in with them as well. It all goes back to the idea of making asking for help that little bit easier.

For more information about complex mental illness, call the SANE Help Centre on 1800 18 7263, or view SANE's Facts + Guides. Our clinically and peer-reviewed information sheets cover symptoms, diagnosis and treatment, and dispel the many myths and misconceptions surrounding complex mental illness.

Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

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