There are several types of mental illnesses that can be diagnosed with clinical interviews, self-report questionnaires, physical exams, and/or medical testing.
People sometimes confuse diagnostic tests for diseases with treatments for symptoms. For example, people may test you for diabetes by checking your blood glucose levels or requiring you to do an oral glucose tolerance test. This is not the same as doing a test to determine if you have diabetes!
Diagnosing depression requires determining whether you are likely experiencing some type of depressive episode (symptoms included) in conjunction with confirming the presence of at least one major symptom cluster (e.g., depressed mood, loss of interest, poor concentration).
Many psychiatric disorders share common symptoms — it is this shared feature set that makes them similar diagnoses. These similarities make it more difficult to clearly identify which factor(s) most strongly influence someone’s diagnosis.
This article will discuss how different tools in psychiatry can help diagnose mental health conditions, what each tool looks like, and when they are needed. While there is no “perfect way” to assess mental health, using a combination of these assessment methods can increase accuracy in diagnosing various conditions.
Disclaimer: The content written here should be used by readers as a guide, not replacing professional diagnosis nor treatment. Consult your doctor from time to time to see if any changes need to occur before a formal diagnosis is given.
Anxiety is typically defined as an uncomfortable feeling that we feel in our body, usually focused in the chest and stomach. It can be experienced physically (such as when you are afraid to speak in front of people) or emotionally (when you worry about something).
Some people seem to have more stress in their lives than others do, but they may not know it. This could make them feel even more stressed out, which only makes things worse.
People with anxiety often worry about having another panic attack, or experiencing symptoms such as sweating, trembling, shortness of breath and heart palpitations. These experiences can become repetitive and frequent, making it difficult for them to lead their normal lives.
There are several types of anxiety disorder. They differ in what level of intensity is needed to make someone feel anxious, how long these feelings last and whether there are specific situations where anxiety feels more intense.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is the most common type of anxiety disorder. People with GAD experience significant amounts of anxiety across various domains – work, home, social life, etc. — almost all of the time.
Specific phobias are also considered mental illnesses. A phobia is when you develop fear of certain objects, activities or settings. For example, someone who has a food phobia might be scared of eating some foods like peas.
Schizophrenia is not an easy diagnosis to have, nor does it happen quickly. It takes time for symptoms to fully develop, making detection difficult.
There are many different types of treatments that can help with mental health conditions like depression or anxiety. However, there is only one FDA-approved treatment for people with schizophrenia — medication.
Because each person’s body processes medications differently, what works for someone may not work for you. There are other therapies (such as cognitive behavioral therapy) that can be tried along with the medicine if needed.
It is very important to take your psychiatric medicines consistently and stay in treatment until you feel better. Discontinuing the drugs can make your condition worse and cause you to experience relapse.
Diagnosing bipolar disorder
There are several types of diagnostic tests used to determine if someone has Bipolar Disorder. A mental health professional will typically ask you about your symptoms, do a physical exam, review medical records, talk to people who know you, and perform psychological testing.
These tests can be done face-to-face or through interviews conducted over the phone or via computer. Some of the most common include:
Interviewing you about yourself and your symptoms
Observing behavior in relationships with others
Performing a physical examination
Reviewing previous medical records
Questionnaires that assess personality traits, moods, and behaviors
When doing these tests, professionals look for patterns of symptoms they have been diagnosed with before, as well as how many symptoms patients show at one time. It is important to remember that everyone’s symptoms work differently, so what may seem like a lot of symptoms to you may not feel very similar to someone else.
However, there are some general signs of BPD that most doctors recognize. These include episodes of depression or mania that last longer than two weeks and occur more frequently than once per month. In addition, depressive episodes must be accompanied by at least four out of eight specific symptoms (such as significant changes in activity level, eating habits, sleep pattern, etc.) and manic/hypomanic episodes must be followed by at least three months of remission from those symptoms.
Diagnosing post-traumatic stress disorder
Most people experience some level of stress in their lives, but for it to be considered diagnosable mental illness, you have to go beyond that.
In fact, most individuals will experience symptoms of mental health conditions like PTSD at least once in their life. It is when these symptoms last longer than two weeks and interfere with daily activities that they are categorized as having an underlying mental health condition.
PTSD can easily be missed or mistaken for other conditions since there is no specific test to determine if someone has it. This is because PTSD is not only caused by events that occur directly before symptoms begin, but also events that happen months or even years later.
People who suffer from PTSD may still feel angry or frustrated, but those feelings don’t usually linger very long. They may try to distract themselves from thoughts about the event causing distress by engaging in hobbies or talking to friends and family.
Diagnosing obsessive-compulsive disorder
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by repeated thoughts or behaviors that feel urgent, important, and need to be done with increasing frequency. These are called compulsions.
People with OCD may worry about contamination or excessive amounts of money, for example. They may also check things many times to make sure they have checked them enough.
They might repeat certain tasks over and over to try to prevent bad events from happening. This could include washing hands very carefully or repeatedly, or avoiding places or situations because you’re afraid something bad will happen there.
It can become an almost impossible challenge to tell whether these fears are justified and appropriate or if they are just unnecessary worries.
Because people with OCD often feel anxious or stressed before performing their rituals, it can be hard to determine when your symptoms are in control and when they’re outside of your body’s regulation system.
Diagnosing eating disorders
People with anorexia nervosa typically develop their condition before age 18. They may feel very stressed or overwhelmed about how they look and want to lose weight.
They may also become obsessed with food and exercise, and may spend large amounts of time thinking about dieting and nutrition.
People with bulimia often eat too much and then try to make up for it by overdrinking or taking laxatives. These people can suffer mental health symptoms like anxiety or depression as well.
Some specific signs that could indicate someone has an eating disorder include:
Loss of interest in doing things that you used to enjoy
Changes in appetite – some people lose weight while others gain
Becoming preoccupied with your body shape and/or diets
Keeping track of what you’ve eaten and why so that you don’t forget anything
Takes longer than usual to recover from a meal
These symptoms may be cause for concern, but they’re not definitive proof that you have an eating disorder.
Many healthy individuals experience changes in appetite, suchas when they start working out or during times of stress.
It’s important to understand that these symptoms do not necessarily mean that you have an eating disorder.
Diagnosing substance use disorders
Substance abuse is typically diagnosed through self-report, as well as observation of behavior. Because mental health conditions can sometimes look similar to substances such as alcohol or benzodiazepines (like what is in Valium), it is important to rule out other diagnoses before confirming that someone does have a drug use disorder.
Symptoms of addiction usually include three things: frequent use, preoccupation with drugs, and neglect of responsibilities due to drugs. These symptoms may be obvious, like when someone comes to work underdressed because they were too busy using cocaine to worry about their clothes, or less apparent, like when someone seems distracted around family members who know them well.
Dementia is a general term used to describe symptoms of mental health conditions that affect your thinking, mood, and behavior. There are many different types of dementias, with some appearing more serious than others.
People often confuse Alzheimer’s disease with Vascular Dementia or Frontotemporal Lobar Degeneration. This can be difficult because they share similar signs and symptoms like memory loss and changes in personality.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia and it is usually diagnosed after someone experiences significant problems with remembering and communicating as well as behavioral shifts. It is important to know the difference between these diseases so you don’t give false positives.
A psychiatrist will perform a psychiatric evaluation which includes asking about mood, activity, sleep patterns, eating habits, and thoughts about self or suicide. They may also do a physical exam and ask for a blood test.
Many doctors order a scan called an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to look at brain structure and function. An x-ray dye is sometimes given to check for abnormalities such as bleeding or fluid buildup in the skull or around the brain.
After all tests come back normal, then the doctor may refer you to another specialist who can perform additional testing. These might include genetic screenings or other exams to rule out other possible causes of brain damage.
There is no way to diagnose dementia without doing a thorough medical examination and having appropriate testing.