Why are Mental Health Problems Routinely Misdiagnosed?

April 4, 2011 Kate White

It's hardly a secret that in the mental health field, everyone gets their take. There is no definitive medical test for any mental illness, and most mental health professionals don't have the time or resources to dig as deep as one hopes.

Mental Health Problems Go In and Out of Vogue

In the 1970-80s eating disorders were en vogue, diagnosed at never before seen rates (partly due to increased awareness among medical professionals). The past decade has seen a dramatic rise in the diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (and/or self-injury, which isn't actually a diagnosis but let's not be picky, shall we?).

Bias is part of the mental health system, whether we like it or not. Everyone, mental health professionals included, is prone to it: finding what they're looking for. Infallibility doesn't come with a medical license, a piece of paper on the wall.

Mental Health Problems Diagnosed Too Quickly

Let's imagine that you have a panic attack and end up in an emergency clinic because it feels like you're having a heart attack. No heart attack, so the ER refers you to a psychiatrist who (too quickly?) diagnoses you with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

Wouldn't you feel more comfortable being given a label like GAD -- and the stigma that comes with it -- if there were a better basis for diagnosing any mental health problem? Wouldn't accepting the label be easier if seeking a psychiatrist for a second opinion wasn't quite so thoroughly frowned upon, or just plain hard to get? Or if asking questions and acting as a self-advocate wasn't more likely to result in being treated as a problem rather than a patient?

Mental Health Problems Are Diagnosed With the Best Guess

Mental health problems are routinely diagnosed. Reasons for it vary in acceptability, but wouldn't you feel better if you could trust your diagnosis? Read this.Most psychotherapists and psychologists are not doctors, and most general practitioners aren't qualified to diagnose a mental illness. They rely on psychiatrists just as much as we do.

Unfortunately, there's always the risk my experience won't be expressed very well. Some psychiatrists don't take what's happening in my head seriously because my own reflection doesn't seem to hold much weight. And some mental illnesses make finding the right words next to impossible, as with the cognitive impairments of depression.

Diagnosis, or misdiagnosis, boils down to whatever the professional happens to see on the day of my appointment. The psychiatrist relies on his or her best guess based on observable behavior.

Which is okay to some extent, but isn't it about time they admit it?

Mental Health Problems Take Away Your Voice

All too many people are diagnosed with mental illnesses they don't have: which doesn't accurately reflect the day-to-day experience of their mental health, and which they do not feel sufficiently empowered or educated to speak about.

Maybe it's because they showed up when the psychiatrist in question was having a bad day, or they have a history of addiction and overdosed in the wrong ER, or one medication didn't work when another did. All of which have next to nothing to do with the supposed bible of psychiatric diagnosis: the DSM-V.

I don't have a grudge against psychiatrists because it's my experience they at least believe they are helping. But I'd still feel better about the ideas they present as fact, were they able to identify what's wrong with any of us to any degree of certainty, beyond a vague diagnostic category.

How many diagnoses did you go through before they found "the right fit?"

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APA Reference
White, K. (2011, April 4). Why are Mental Health Problems Routinely Misdiagnosed?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 23 from

Author: Kate White

December, 21 2018 at 3:17 am

People need to put there faith in Jesus Christ Our Lord And Savior. Jesus listens and heels those who come to there knees and pray for heeling. There is atheists who try to make Jesus a fake and take away all hope but Jesus is REAL He noes all sees all heres all But you must pray hard and beg for mercyand you WILL be saved from your ills

Rebecca Cullinan
January, 30 2018 at 3:53 pm

When I was 23 I became confused and went to the doctor feeling a bit flustered too. I was refered to another doctor that told me I had schizophrenia and would see him from then. My head pumped at the side and my sinuses began to hurt and my head went very hot I was more flustered. My doctor said I was fine. My head was obviously not ok and my sinuses were causing problems. Then I began to get migrain. At the time I never knew about migrain but I went to the doctor describing basic migrain symptoms, pain, red dots in front of eyes, light hurting my eyes and feeling frustrated. He said I was imagining it and did a snigger. I walked away in pain and my migrain tormented me for just over a year untill an older lady approached me in the street and asked me what was wrong. I described the basic symptoms which she quickly identified and told me to get migralieve. After 20 minutes my torment subsided and my head was raw. I then had a whole body breakdown. All my muscles were in pain. I was bedridden for eight months even going to the toilet was hard. The only way I got better was my young daughter. I had to get up and be with her no matter . It was a hard slow task but after a few weeks the pain seemed to just become part of me and I could move better. While I had migrain I was sent to mental hospital twice as my daughter saw me in pain and told the doctor how I was. So I have been fighting the system since this doctor diognosed me wrongly. I changed doctors twice but can't get away from the miss diagnosis. I still have problems with the side of my head and research soon helped me identity it as from an accident I was in when I was little where a car hit my head full pelt and I was in a commor for 3 months. I experience symptoms from this still and am still fighting to be listened to. My first doctor has put a mind field in front of me. Even my daughter can't talk about it. I feel I have no more avenues to try. I've been fighting for 23 years. It's becoming tedious. The injury is on my temple and effects my whole senses and nerves and I can't even get nerve pills. I asked the new doctor and she just said no. I'm still trying though as there must be a non robot out there. I deserve it and my daughter deserves it. She was only seven when it began.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

January, 30 2018 at 4:59 pm

Hi Rebecca, thank you for sharing your story. But wow, I am deeply sorry that you've been experiencing such a rough time with many obstacles all these years. I sincerely get your need for relief and doctors to understand things the way you see them. That's a normal response. Aside from trying additional doctors, I wonder if seeing a good counselor might help you to at least cope with the pain your experiencing. Ideally, that person will be able to help point you in the right direction in resolving some of the issues that feel most pressing to you. But in the meantime, it sounds like you could use some trusted support. Unfortunately, it may take a couple of attempts to get someone who you feel can trust therapeutically, but it's worth a shot. Wishing you relief and healing.

Marie smith
September, 29 2016 at 2:02 am

I have been misdiagnosed as well and if I say anything they would come and section me again you see I told them that I am being treated like a thief for the past 6 years and told them that the security and the staff follow me around when ever I go to shop, they turned it around and started asking are you hearing voices are you seeing people following you you on the road.
See how dangerous these Mental health doctors are they are no good and destroy people life who are giving these people all these privileges over descent people life.
They are destroying people life too much and it is time that the government intervene I am fedup of not being able to have a voice I am still being treated like a thief and can't say anything because they will want to section me again.
Can someone out there speak up for us we ate being misdiagnosed and it is not good get rid of all mental health workers they are useless.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

August, 15 2017 at 7:42 am

If the diagnosis is wrong and you deny it, they are trained to believe that is another sign of mental illness. Many trashcan 'science' studies have been done on that too which they will bring in a the courtroom to discredit and take away any human rights you may have. But dont worry, they are here to 'help'.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Diana Haydon
September, 22 2017 at 1:03 am

I baked cookies for the NJSP...I was told I was not only the psychiatrist tells the judge I'm Skitzo!

Marcie B.
August, 26 2016 at 12:03 am

I am in a very similar situation to Dany Brown. Growing up I was neglected and abused physically, sexually and emotionally by my parents and several other family members. Much of the abuse lasted well into my adult years. A social worker helped me escape my family three years ago and I've been trying to get help recovering from this.
I have all the symptoms of PTSD but my doctors haven't been willing to diagnose me with it because nobody attempted (or threatened) to take my life. They call it social anxiety instead, and the treatment for that is completely ineffective for me. It just tires me out.
I think that it's because in my country, insurance will only cover treatment if the patient fits the DSM criteria to the letter. The criteria for PTSD are extensive and detailed, while for social anxiety they are basically just "must have panic attacks and dread being around other people."
I really hope this changes one day.

Dany Brown
July, 13 2016 at 2:56 am

I have PTSD from several years of bullying in my organisation. I have been seeing a Psychologist who is great but can't diagnose it as that because according to the manual I did not have one life threatening incident (I belive that criteria has been relaxed but I have to check). He did diagnise me with Adjustment disorder ( reactive depression). I asked to also see a psychiatrist as I wanted it diagnosed so I could be treated properly and have it recognized for veterans affairs reasons ( im in the Australian Defence Force ). Unknown to me, from the second visist hed already labled my as having a mild "personailty disorder "because as my gp told me this week, id had issues in the work place ( ive been bullied). Last week during what will now be our last session the psychiatrist told me" we need to work on your personality and come back in a month". He refused anti depressants and despite me being doubled over in tears, he sent me off saying" we put of time and need to stop now, see you in a month".
I cannot belive that in today's modern age we still blame the victims ( he concurs I've been bullied but as far as he is concerned it's because of my personality).
I suffer repeated nightmares, flashbacks, fear of going to certain places, incontinence (ice wet myself a few times in fear) gastro, irritability, lack of concenotation, hypervigilance and emotional outbursts just to name a few of the symptoms. I didn't ask or do anything to the bullies ( several of which have bullied others in my organization) which caused the bullying.
I cannot belive a Dr would victim blame. Lucky I wasn't raped, I expect he would want to work on my " dress sense or blame me for dressing the wrong way".

April, 2 2016 at 11:32 pm

i have an anxiety disorder cause of stress at home and was misdiagnosed for bpd. by a psychiatrist. i know i dont have bpd. i called the psychiatrist and ask him to change the misdiagnosis and get it out of my permanent files. i got a letter back from him denying my request to remove this from my files. now i have more anxiety than ever before. i already had a mini stroke. his misdiagnosis and his refusal to remove it, is causing me more stress and i have high blood pressure. i want to touch base with him to clarify this misdiagnosis but he does not answer the phone anymore. how can i have this horrible misdiagnosis removed out of my permanent files? any advice would be very much appreciated.

vicki troman
December, 7 2015 at 8:14 am

I just found out the doctor who diagnosed me with mental health problems was high on amphetamines and has been busted making and using it and has been struck off I have panic attacks and suffer ptsd I was told I was schitzophrenic and for put on risperadol I become confused and poor memory a side effect so every doctor consultation I acted not me they have had me on hard psychotic drugs for 10 yrs and told that's if its true when I explain my plight total misdiagnosis

August, 30 2015 at 5:18 am

My husband was diagnosed with Bipolar 2 over 15 years ago. They tried every cocktail & drug out there, only for his symptoms to get worse & worse. 3 years ago he was finally diagnosed with ADHD. The treatment seems to work very well! However he is having a hard time, understandably, about the fact that he lost his 30's & part of his 40's. We decided to not have children because of the misdiagnosis. He was laid up on the couch wanting to die, while most people his age were making money, connections & relationships. He is now left in his mid 40's with nothing but resentment, for the fact that the drugs they were giving him were making him worse! Is there anything he can do legally? Are there any tips for HOW to "get over" losing a huge chunk of your life?

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Greg Weber
August, 30 2015 at 9:28 am

Any thoughts readers could give to Dana's question would be appreciated.

Caroline Sheila Hill
August, 12 2015 at 8:49 am

I feel so sorry for the many people who are misdiagnosed. Personally I think there is a surplus of antipsychotics, everyone I know with mental health problems is on them. The side effects are horrendous. I've been diagnosed with BPD and bipolar, my problem was stress causing insomnia resulting in strange thioughts and behaviour. I'm on abilify, but risperidone injections over 4 months have left me with tremor and a partly paralysed left hand. It's pointless trying to reason with psychiatrists, I've been threatened with section again if I don't take the pills. I'm non compliant if I don't and have poor insight into my condition. It's a tragedy. They're even screening new mums and dads now, and treating autistic children with risperidone for irritation. Auties use irritation to tell carers something's wrong. I really despair of this industry driven by big drug companies. I meet people in their 30s and 40s with chronic heart disease, diabetes, tremor and paralysis, and no emotions. I think they should be more accountable and the law less draconian. It's the only illness to be treated immediately with drugs before a proper assessment is carried out. It's wrong.

Myra Tutty
August, 6 2015 at 8:27 am

My daughter was violently hit over the head and then raped by two men last july, as a result of the head trauma, she suffered with amnesia and had no recollection of what happened to her for at least 8 weeks after. Her memory came back in a very fragmented manner, flashbacks, nightmares etc. She could not cope with what had happened to her and she tried to take her own life by jumping from Tower bridge in November 2014, she was sectioned and taken to a mental health unit, she was then diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, I have been arguing this diagnosis for the last ten months and while her doctor continued to say this was what she had, my daughter has gone from 1 crisis to another with no treatment whatsoever. About 3 weeks ago, he finally said that he did not think she fitted into the criteria of having BPD and that he would refer her to have Trauma Therapy, at that time she was an informal patient following her third section 2. She recently burst out of the unit and made another attempt to jump from tower bridge and has now been sectioned under section 3 and has been put in the intensive care unit so that she can't get out. My point is that she has been a victim of a brutal crime and was diagnosed with borderline personality, how on earth did she get that from a life threatening trauma? her diagnosis should have been post traumatic stress disorder from day one and as a result of her misdiagnosis, she has been failed to have the appropriate treatment and we are now ten months down the line and she has just got worse with repeated suicide attempts, her doctor calls her suicide attempts as set backs. Her situation has just got sadder and sadder, she is 21 years of age and has battled with what has happened to her for over a year with no therapeutic intervention.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Nicky Pemberton
July, 29 2018 at 6:42 am

Psychiatrists frequently diagnose patients with traumatic brain injuries and acquired brain injuries with "personality disorders".
My daughter suffered permanent brain damage when she was mis-diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and prescribed a mood
stabilizer and anti-depressant. All psychiatric medications can cause hyponatremia and cerebral oedema which she developed
on these medications. Psychiatrists don't know about psychotropic induced hyponatremia however!!!
When she developed severe hyponatremia, she was sent to the psychiatric unit in error. A week later, she
developed osmotic demylenation syndrome, a complication of severe untreated hyponatremia. She was severely cognitively impaired
so to hide their medical negligence, the psychiatrists diagnosed her with borderline personality disorder, anxiety and depression and continued
to prescribe her psychiatric medications for the rest of her short life. I only discovered this when I read her medical records after she died.

Kris Ramasawmy
June, 25 2015 at 8:24 am

Dear Sir,
I would like comment with regard to the treatment which my son Gavin has been subjected over the last 10 years. He became ill when he was 19 years of age. He started having severe anxiety that he was unable to continue with his uni degree. The doctor who saw him started him on prozac. I cannot recall how the assessment was carried out, if other medical condition was considered or how long the doctor took. At the time he was not presenting with any positive or negative symptoms of schizophrenia. Soon he started getting paranoid, delusional and ideas of self harm. In the meantime we made our own investigation and found out that he was hyperthyroid,had a low level of vitD and i believe that he had an element of ocd that was nor detected or recognisedthen. These medical condition could have contributed to the anxiety and the ocd.The doctor changed his medication to olanzapine and soon after venlafaxine. This was the start of a roller coaster of antipsychotics and anti depressants. The anti psychotics was exacerbating the ocd symptoms, experiencing obsessive intrusive thoughts of harming loved ones, It was a struggle to convince the caring team as we were lookeduponas knowing to much, as inteferring and difficult.
We took him for a second opinion at the Maudsleys who confirmed that he was sufferig from severe ocd and agree to traet him. He had to come off his medication slowly. The plan was to try ssri with exposure therapy and cbt While comming off the medication he was allowed to detoriate to such an extent that he needed to be admitted under section. It is now nearly two years and the doctor has not change his medication. Heis still being treated with Respiridone. His section has been renewed twice because of these intrusive thoughts and he is being cobsidered as a danger to himself and others They have placed him on a community treatment order. I have appealto the managers and the mental health tribunal without any success. I really do not know what to do next. His diagnosis has not been clear from the begining It went from depression to delusional beliefs, then to paranoid schizophrenia and now they accepted the diagnosis of severe ocd but still not gettin the proper threatment.
I wonder if there could heve been a misdiagnosis from the begining and got the wrong treatment. So for all the antipsychotis and antidepressants has proved desastrous as he is very sensitive and resistant to them.
Please give me your opinion.

Dr Musli Ferati
April, 19 2011 at 8:57 pm

After this explanation, I would say that psychiatric workout is very complicate and subtle medical profession. It try to find serious approach and a responsible attendance upon mental ill patient. Simultaneously, it ought to be alert of global aspect of medical, psychosocial and sociocultural issue to whoever patient. For these ones, every psychiatrist should to provide with outstanding and comprehensive knowledge in psychology, sociology, anthropology, theology and others science on nature of man. Indeed this preliminary condition without fail must be associate with a satisfactory capacity of benevolence to any worker in complex mental health service. Otherwise, mental health services would be feeble and the same will be conduct with a misdiagnosed supply. Mistaken setting diagnosis in psychiatry has hardness consequences for ill patient and his family as well. From this psychiatric deficiency it isn't possible to escape but it should to insist to decrease them in tolerable level.

David Harrison
April, 13 2011 at 1:51 am

Thank you for this. How would you advise us to respond with third party professional medical certified evaluations that would clarify misdiagnosis?
It appears that somemembers in the profession see in their patients the characteristics to which they are most familair, without being objective listeners.

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