Are the labels put on us really who we are? And what about our health?

The labels we assign to others, and ourselves, can affect health.
The labels we assign to others, and ourselves, can affect health. @GlowIm

It would be a rare person who could navigate through life completely unaware of expectations placed upon him by others or by himself.

One way expectations are powerfully conveyed is in the words we choose and how we use them, as my wife and I found in raising our children. Words choices, as well as our thoughts about them, affected their behavior.

Research has also shown that expections by teachers is a powerful influence on student performance. For instance, Harvard professor Robert Rosenthal demonstrated that labeling in education determined student success. As reported on NPR:

“Rosenthal discovered that the teachers’ expectations of … kids really did affect the students. ‘If teachers had been led to expect greater gains in IQ, then increasingly, those kids gained more IQ,’ he says.”

In the mental health field there seems to be an emerging expansion of diagnoses, or labels. Dr. Allen Frances, M.D, professor emeritus at Duke, writes in Psychology Today:

“My biggest concern regarding DSM-5 is that it will dramatically increase the rates of mental disorder and cheapen the currency of psychiatric diagnosis. The DSM-5 proposals do this two ways. [One way is] by introducing new high prevalence disorders at the boundary with normality.”

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is a manual used to aid psychologists and psychiatrists in diagnosing and treating mental disorders. At the heart of the controversy is the expansion of possible diagnoses, or labels that can be treated with drugs and therapies, which up to now have been considered normal states or moods.

At the stroke of a pen, for instance, withdrawal from caffeine and periodic binge eating have become behaviors now worthy of classification in the DSM-5.

Previous editions of the DSM, however, are not without controversy. In fact, some might argue that the DSM itself is problematic because it focuses on labeling in unhelpful ways.

Dr. Kwame McKenzie points out in his piece in Salon.com:

“Reducing humans and human behaviour to symptoms without considering the complexities of existence—and the fact that we are past, present, and future beings with a social and historical context—may never produce a satisfying system for understanding mental problems.

“The new DSM may help psychiatrists formulate more accurate diagnoses, but I worry that its focus on the individual may detract from a wider investigation into the issues. It pushes us toward labeling and blaming people for reactions to the situations they find themselves in…”

The DSM, however, is not universally accepted as the standard. Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D. reports that France doesn’t use the DSM. One disorder to illustrate the differences in approach is ADHD. In France they view ADHD-like behavior as an environmental and social problem rather than a biological one to be treated with drugs. The diagnosis of ADHD in France applies only to 0.5% of all children whereas in the United States it’s 9%. Different labels and different diagnoses lead to different treatments and successes between France and the US.

I’ve found that when I assign labels to others, positive or negative, they tend to reinforce my expectation. I’ve learned that when I identify only good in others, and expect only the best from them, that’s what I get. And, it seems to me that our ability to see ourselves without negative labels allows us to be more normal and healthy.

Pioneer researcher in the science of connecting thought and health, Mary Baker Eddy, points out that seeing others as innately good and perfect results in better health. To me, this sense of perfection means blameless. She writes that Jesus was able to see:

“…the perfect man, who appeared to him where sinning mortal man appears to mortals. In this perfect man the Saviour saw God’s own likeness, and this correct view of man healed the sick.”(p. 476-7)

Perhaps Dr. Frances’ concern about labeling normal behaviors as disorders should cause us to pause.

Looking for a mental health disorder in the tapestry of normal human behavior may lead us down the wrong path. When we see our fellow man (and woman) through the lens of love and look for the best in them, that gives them the freedom to be their best.

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