Building Blocks of Mental Distress: A Dimensional Assessment of Mental Illness

This is a cross-post from my professional blog, where the most updated version of this will be.

The field of mental healthcare has its roots in medicine. The earliest mental health professionals were doctors—psychiatrists. Like medicine, psychiatry and clinical psychology are based on the process of assessing patients’ symptoms, performing some sort of test if needed, assigning a diagnosis, and creating a treatment plan based on that diagnosis.

This is a very sensible approach for most medical issues. If I appear at my primary care doctor’s office complaining of persistent headaches, she shouldn’t just treat the headache by prescribing a painkiller. She should refer me to someone who can figure out what’s causing the headache, and then treat that condition, whether it’s extreme stress, a head injury, a bacterial infection, a brain tumor, or some other problem.

Even though we’ve been treating mental health issues this way for at least a century, it’s not the best way to treat them. And many psychiatrists, therapists, and researchers are starting to realize that.

That’s why we’re finally starting to see approaches to assessment and treatment of mental illness that move away from the much-argued-about diagnoses in the DSM, and sometimes away from the concept of mental illness altogether. Psychologists such as David Barlow, Rochelle Frank, and Joan Davidson have been working on so-called transdiagnostic approaches[1]; the newest edition of the DSM includes a chapter about a proposed new way to diagnose personality disorders that’s based on specific personality traits rather than broad, stigmatized labels[2].

I’m looking forward to the day when the field as a whole has shifted to these types of approaches entirely. For now, I needed a tool I can use with clients to help them (and myself) understand what they’re dealing with and access helpful resources and support. So I created my own informal dimensional assessment.

This assessment is a list of 33 (and counting, I’m sure) ways in which our brains can get in our way. You could think of them as symptoms, but I prefer to think of them as painful patterns, or building blocks of mental distress. Everyone has at least some of these; many people have a lot of them and don’t necessarily suffer greatly for it. It’s all a matter of degree.

Most of these terms are actual mental illness symptoms that appear in the DSM or in other clinical psychology texts. Some of them I coined from existing words because they aren’t really being talked about very much yet. Each of them shows up commonly with at least one established diagnosis, and most relate to quite a few of them.

In creating this list, it was important to me to try to get at the ways in which people who aren’t therapists or scientists might actually think of these experiences. So each building block has a statement with it. The way I plan to use this clinically is to show clients a list of the statements and ask them to rate each one on how much they agree or disagree with it. That would give both of us a sense of what their psychological landscape looks like, regardless of which DSM diagnoses it might resemble.

The initial feedback I’ve gotten is that folks find this really helpful for communicating with their therapists and psychiatrists about what they’re dealing with. I think that’s a great way to use this tool. Therapists know specific interventions that target many of these things; coming to a session and saying that you’d like to address your amotivation, emotional disregulation, and tendency to ruminate is bound to be more helpful than just saying that you want to be less depressed.

  • Agitation: “I often feel so on edge that I need to be moving constantly, as if I want to crawl out of my skin.”
  • Amotivation: “I struggle with getting myself to actually do things, even when I want or need to.”
  • Anhedonia: “I don’t get any joy out of things I used to like.”
  • Attention disregulation: “I can’t seem to choose when to stop or start paying attention to something.”
  • Avoidance: “I find myself trying to avoid things that bring up painful thoughts or feelings.”
  • Cognitive inflexibility: “When things don’t go the way I wanted or planned, it’s very difficult for me to adjust my expectations or make a new plan.”
  • Compulsiveness: “Sometimes I feel like I need to do an action or ritual in order to feel okay, and I feel awful if I try to force myself not to.”
  • Depersonalization: “Sometimes I feel like I’m not really in my body, or I don’t know who I am.”
  • Disordered eating: “I have a hard time controlling what or how much I eat; or, I need to control it so carefully that it’s hurting me.”
  • Dissociation: “Sometimes I experience a memory so strongly that I’m not sure who, where, or when I am.”
  • Distress intolerance: “I don’t feel like I can handle strong emotions. I need to make them go away.”
  • Dysmorphia: “I seem to see my body differently than other people do.”
  • Emotional disregulation: “When I have strong emotions, it’s very difficult for me to manage them and calm myself down.”
  • Emotional lability: “My mood can change quickly between extremes.”
  • General anxiety: “I often think about things that could go wrong in the future.”
  • Guilt: “I feel guilty even when I didn’t do anything wrong.”
  • Helplessness: “I don’t really believe that there’s much I can do to help myself feel better or improve my life.”
  • Hopelessness: “I feel like things won’t turn out okay.”
  • Hyperactivity: “Having to sit still and not move makes me extremely uncomfortable.”
  • Hypervigilance: “I’m always on the lookout for possible danger, and often I sense danger where there isn’t any.”
  • Identity disturbance: “I don’t have a strong sense of who I am; it depends mostly on the opinions of the people around me at the time.”
  • Impulsivity: “Sometimes I say or do things without thinking about them first, and afterward I can’t always tell you why I did them. When I have an urge to do something, it’s very difficult to keep myself from doing it.”
  • Inattention: “I can’t make myself focus on things I need to do.”
  • Irritability: “Little things annoy me so much I want to yell or snap at people.”
  • Mania: “I have periods of time during which I feel extremely energetic, irritable, or ‘high,’ and during these periods I tend to sleep little, talk too fast, accomplish a lot of things, or do things I later regret.”
  • Obsessiveness: “I have intrusive thoughts that bother me and I can’t make them stop.”
  • Panic: “Sometimes, my breathing speeds up and my heart starts rushing, and I feel like I’m going to die.”
  • Psychosis: “I perceive or believe things that feel very true to me, but aren’t true according to everyone else.”
  • Rejection sensitivity: “I feel like I can’t deal with it if someone dislikes me, or says no to me. I’m constantly on the lookout for potential rejection, and I probably sometimes see it when it isn’t really there.”
  • Rumination: “When I start thinking about something negative, I tend to keep thinking about it over and over and feeling even worse.”
  • Social anxiety: “When I’m around people, I worry about how I’m coming across or what I should say or do.”
  • Splitting: “I tend to see people either as extremely good or extremely bad, and I can switch quickly from one to the other.”
  • Suicidality: “I have thoughts that I want to die, or that I wish I could just not exist.”

Although I’ll probably never be able to turn this into an Official Research-Verified Published Thing or anything like that, I do hope to keep refining it and making it useful to my clients—and to any other therapists who want to give it a try.


[1] https://www.newharbinger.com/blog/transdiagnostic-psychology-why-we-need-transdiagnostic-road-map

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201303/whats-new-and-old-in-the-dsm-5-personality-disorders


Brute Reason does not host comments–here’s why.

If you liked this post, please consider supporting me on Patreon or Ko-fi!

Building Blocks of Mental Distress: A Dimensional Assessment of Mental Illness
{advertisement}

A Case for Strengths-Based Diagnosis

[Obligatory disclaimer that I am not (yet) a licensed therapist and that the following is my personal opinion, informed by practice and academic study.]

Recently in a class on adult psychopathology, my professor was discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the text used to diagnose mental illnesses and categorize them for the purposes such as research, insurance billing, and sharing information among professionals.

One of the weaknesses he mentioned was one I’d actually never heard before: that the way the DSM diagnosis is written and shared does not include any space for also “diagnosing” the client’s strengths.

At first, this seemed irrelevant to me, not in the sense that thinking about your client’s strengths is not important, but in the sense that I didn’t see how it matters for a diagnosis. It almost seemed a little patronizing: “Yes, you have major depressive disorder and social phobia, but hey, at least you seem like you’re pretty resourceful and good at expressing yourself!”

But then I rethought that.

Here’s an example of a DSM-V diagnosis:

296.35 (F33.41) Major depressive disorder, early onset, recurrent episode, in partial remission, with atypical features

300.4 (F34.1) Persistent depressive disorder, early onset, with atypical features, with intermittent major depressive episodes, without current episode, moderate

V62.89 (Z60.0) Phase of life problem

It’s honestly difficult for me to imagine looking at this information with anything other than relief. For me, diagnosis has always meant one thing first and foremost: You’re not a terrible person; you just have an illness.

But to other people, seeing something like this can communicate a whole lot else. You’re sick. You’re fucked up. There is nothing redeeming about you. You can’t do something as simple as not being so sad. This is especially true when someone is already predisposed to interpret information about themselves in a negative light, because, well, that’s what mental illness always does.

In that moment, it can be really helpful to have confirmation–not just from a friend or loved one, but from a professional whose job it is to assess you–that you do have strengths and positive qualities.

So, here are some reasons incorporating strengths into diagnoses might be a really good thing.

  1. Giving hope and affirmation to the client.

Just like it can be nice to go get a dental checkup and hear, “You’ve been doing a great job at preventing cavities, but you need to floss more consistently in order to keep your gums from getting irritated,” it can be nice to hear, “Based on what you’ve told me, I believe that you’ve had a major depressive episode for the past few months. However, you’ve clearly been very good at reaching out to friends and family for support, and it sounds like you have a lot of people rooting for you to get better.”

Therapists and psychiatrists say “nice” things like this all the time, but writing it down as part of a diagnosis might be symbolically meaningful. To the client, that communicates the fact that their strengths are just as important as their diagnosis–important enough to be written on the form or in the chart. It shows that their mental healthcare provider, whom they might feel shy around or even judged by, does see them as a whole human being with strengths as well as a diagnosable illness.

  1. Providing possible avenues for treatment.

A psychiatrist may diagnose a client and then refer them to a therapist (therapy combined with medication tends to be more effective than either in isolation). Now what? The therapist can look at the diagnosis, or ask the client what it is, and proceed from there.

What if the diagnosis included something like, “Client reports that volunteer work helps them distract themselves from symptoms, and that writing in a journal has occasionally been helpful”? The therapist now has some potential ways to help the client. Or the diagnosis might include, “Despite severe symptoms, client shows a high level of insight about the possible origins of their depression.” The therapist now knows that lack of self-awareness isn’t the problem–symptom management might be.

I continue to be amazed that none of my therapists ever asked me if there’s any way I could incorporate writing into my depression recovery, or if there are any ways I’ve been incorporating it already. Writing is my life. Usually I’ve either said as much in therapy, or I haven’t because nobody ever asked me what I like to do or what makes me feel good. Why not?

  1. Reducing negative bias from providers.

I can’t make definitive statements without more research, but based on what I understand about bias, I can imagine that consistently viewing a client as “major depressive disorder with atypical features and moderate persistent depressive disorder” does things to one’s perception of that person. Not positive things.

It is difficult (if not impossible) to effectively help someone you view as deficient or weak. First of all, your likely pessimism about the person’s recovery will almost certainly be perceived (and possibly internalized) by them. Second, any roadblocks that come up in treatment will likely be interpreted as “resistance” or “not really wanting to get better” or “not being ready to do the work of therapy.” In fact, maybe it’s that your approach isn’t actually helpful to them. Third, without a conscious awareness of the person’s strengths and assets, what exactly are you using to help them recover? Therapy isn’t about “healing” people so much as helping them discover their own resources and help themselves. If you don’t even know what those might be, how could you possibly help the client see them?

Many therapists try to think of their clients’ positive traits in addition to their “negative” ones. However, formalizing and structuring this process as part of a diagnosis might make it sink in better, and become more embedded in one’s general impression of a person. The questions we generally have to ask while diagnosing someone are fairly negatively oriented–”Do you ever have trouble falling asleep? How often? To what extent does this impact your daily life?”. What if we also asked, “What helps you sleep better? How do you cope with being tired after a night of insomnia?” Maybe that can help shift a therapist’s perspective of this person from “insomniac” to “person with difficulty sleeping, who has reached out to friends for help with daily tasks.”

  1. Preventing provider burnout.

I dislike talking about my work because people are consistently amazed at it in a way that annoys me. “How could you deal with hearing these awful things?” they ask. “Isn’t it really depressing to work with all these people?” It isn’t, because thanks to my training, I’ve internalized a strengths-based perspective. When I think about the people I’ve worked with, I don’t see poor suffering depressives and trauma victims. I see resilient, determined individuals who are working to overcome their challenges in the best ways they can.

I think that some people in this field burn out because they can only see the suffering and the oppression and the unfairness of it. I also see those things, obviously, because they’re sort of a big deal. But if that’s all you see when you sit with a client, not only will that be reflected in your treatment of them, but it’ll also impact your own ability to persevere.

If every time a therapist made a diagnosis, they had to intentionally remind themselves of the client’s strengths, that might go a far way in helping them remember that there is hope and everything is not absolutely bad.

As I’ve mentioned, plenty of mental health professionals already incorporate a strengths-based perspective into their work. But this is more common in areas like social work, where diagnosis is rarely used and actually often criticized, anyway. I certainly don’t remember any of my psychiatrists or PhD-level therapists spending any time asking me about my strengths or coping strategies. They gave me my diagnosis, and that was mainly it as far as assessment goes.

One might argue that strengths assessment has no place in the DSM because it needs to be standardized and reliable. However, reliability may be a problem for the DSM regardless, meaning that different professionals assessing the same client may disagree in their DSM-based diagnosis.

One might also argue that the DSM is “about” mental disorders, not “about” a client’s overall set of traits or strengths. I’ll grant that. Regardless, I think that formally incorporating individual strengths into clinical assessments in therapy and psychiatry may be helpful. May be.

A Case for Strengths-Based Diagnosis

You Can't Diagnose Mental Illness from a Tweet

Today at the Daily Dot, I discussed the strange Twitter behavior of a former Paypal executive and the predictable mass rush to claim that it’s evidence of “mental illness”:

Is Rakesh Agrawal mentally ill? I have no idea, and neither do you.

There’s a long history of using mental illness as a multipurpose scapegoat when people do bizarre, harmful, or dangerous things. Mass shootings are frequently blamed on mental illness despite little evidence, as is homosexuality, kinky sex, atheism, and, apparently, weird tweets.

This accomplishes a number of things. First of all, where the behavior is harmless to others but is nevertheless not tolerated by the public–homosexuality, kinky sex, gender nonconformity–categorizing the behavior as a mental illness gives us a convenient excuse to try to change it. Second, where the behavior is harmful but we don’t want to deal with its actual, structural causes–mass shootings, sexual assault, spending too much money–categorizing the behavior as a mental illness allows us to feel like we’re doing something to prevent it without having to ask any difficult questions about how our society may be contributing to it.

Finally, when the behavior has (justifiably or otherwise) made people upset at the person, categorizing the behavior as a mental illness packs an extra punch to the insults directed at that person. That’s because mental illness is stigmatized. It shouldn’t be, but it still is. Calling someone “crazy” or telling them to “get back on their meds” or “check into the psych ward” is insulting because being the type of person who needs medication or hospitalization is presumed to be shameful.

Read the rest here.

~~~

Liked this post? Please consider donating so I can speak at conferences.

You Can't Diagnose Mental Illness from a Tweet