Steps to Diagnosing Mental Health Disorders

Oftentimes, mental health issues co-occur with substance use disorders.1 The term used for when a person is diagnosed with both a mental health disorder and a substance use disorder is co-occurring disorders.2 Licensed medical professionals diagnose mental health disorders, and it is this diagnosis that helps guide treatment options.3

The most effective treatment will depend upon the particular cause of the symptoms being experienced, so it is important that a diagnosis be accurate and thorough.

Continue reading to learn more about each of the steps involved with diagnosing mental health disorders.

Steps Taken When Diagnosing Mental Health Disorders

Diagnosing a mental health disorder is a process, and often includes multiple medical and mental health professionals. The patient should be evaluated not only for a mental health disorder, but for physical conditions that could be related to the symptoms being experienced.3

Many people have more than one mental health disorder, so a thorough diagnosis should address all the problems an individual faces.

Step 1: Conduct a Physical Exam

A general practitioner or other medical professional is often the first person involved when diagnosing a mental health disorder.

The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy recommends that a physical examination be conducted in order to check for medical problems that might be causing, accompanying, or resulting from a psychological disorder.4

Some disorders, such as depression and anxiety, can have physical causes. Thyroid problems and other physical diseases can sometimes be misdiagnosed as mental health disorders.5 Having a thorough physical exam can help ensure an accurate diagnosis.

Lab tests are also typically conducted. If a doctor does not find a physical cause for the symptoms, the patient will be referred to a mental health professional to be evaluated for psychological disorders.

Step 2: Conduct a Psychological Evaluation

Licensed psychiatrists and psychologists can diagnose mental health disorders. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in mental health. A psychologist also specializes in mental health but does not hold a medical degree.6

Psychiatrists can prescribe medication; psychologists cannot. Specialized education and practical experience are needed to be licensed in both professions.6

Mental health professionals typically begin an evaluation by having a conversation about current symptoms. Often, mental health disorders can be diagnosed through informal conversations with a therapist.

Sometimes, the therapist will administer a more structured psychological evaluation in order to better determine the correct diagnosis. These evaluations come in many forms, depending on the specific diagnosis in question.

Oftentimes, the therapist will assess the patient’s answers to the particular test’s questions to determine which diagnosis is most appropriate.

Most psychiatrists and psychologists use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) to diagnose mental health disorders.7 This manual includes criteria for hundreds of different disorders. The therapist or psychiatrist will determine which criteria fit the patient’s condition best.

The disorders in the DSM-5 are broken down into several categories of mental health disorders. The categories include the following:7

It is not uncommon to be diagnosed with more than one mental health disorder. Some disorders commonly accompany each other. The treatment professional should evaluate the patient for disorders that are often diagnosed together.

Step 3: Create a Treatment Plan

Once a diagnosis has been established, a treatment plan should be created. Treatment often includes care provided by:

  • A general practitioner.
  • A psychiatrist.
  • A psychologist or counselor.

Each member of the treatment team should be aware of the diagnoses and treatment methods being used. Many severe or debilitating mental health disorders require inpatient or residential treatment, but the vast majority of people who get treatment receive it on an outpatient basis.

Psychotherapy – also called talk therapy – is a popular form of treatment for mental health disorders.8 Some disorders can be treated with medication, such as:9

  • Antidepressants.
  • Anti-anxiety medications.
  • Antipsychotics.

For many people, the most effective treatment combines therapy and medication.10 Some people benefit from alternative forms of treatment, such as:

  • Exercise.
  • Acupuncture.
  • Yoga.
  • Massage.

Mental health professionals can devise a specific care plan that incorporates the treatments that will most benefit the patient.

There are a vast number of psychotherapy methods that are supported by research as effective in the treatment of certain mental health disorders.11

The National Institute of Mental Health lists the following modalities as some of the most commonly used:11

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
  • Interpersonal therapy
  • Family-focused therapy
  • Psychodynamic therapy
  • Light therapy
  • Expressive or creative arts therapy
  • Animal-assisted therapy
  • Play therapy

Some therapists specialize in a specific therapy method, while many combine elements of multiple methods into their approach. Some diagnoses tend to respond better to specific methods of therapy. Treatment of mental health disorders is highly individual; what works for one person may not work for another.11

Oftentimes, diagnoses may evolve throughout the treatment process.3 Symptoms that weren’t present at the initial assessment may present after all substances have left a person’s system.

As a result, ongoing and regular assessments are helpful throughout the recovery process, as the person progresses in therapy. This ensures that the most accurate diagnoses are given and the most appropriate treatment plan is applied.

Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorder and Substance Use Disorder Treatment

If your mental health disorder co-occurs with a substance use disorder, there are facilities and professionals who can help diagnose and treat both at the same time.

As an American Addiction Centers facility, Sunrise House Treatment Center specializes in treating co-occurring disorders. Call to learn more about how our inpatient rehab in New Jersey uses evidence-based therapies when treating mental health disorders and addiction.

Sunrise House is in-network with many major insurance providers and our admissions navigators are available 24/7 to help you determine your insurance coverage for rehab. You can also instantly online. If you don’t have insurance, there are other ways to pay for rehab.

Whether you’re wondering what to expect in inpatient rehab or are ready to get admitted today, we’re here to support you in your recovery journey.

Mental Health Disorder Statistics

  • 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year.12
  • Approximately half of individuals diagnosed with mental health disorders also develop substance use disorders (SUD).1
  • 1 out of every 8 emergency department visits by a U.S. adult involve substance use disorders and mental illness.12
  • It is estimated that only half of people with mental health issues receive treatment.13

Watch this short video to learn about Jennifer’s experience with AAC.

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