Un-diagnosing mental illness in the process of helping

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Publication details

Lakeman, R & Emeleus, M 2014, 'Un-diagnosing mental illness in the process of helping', Psychotherapy in Australia, vol. 21, no. 1, pp.38-45.


A medical diagnosis of a mental illness is a powerful symbol of both the presumed nature of the person’s experience and the authority of the person making the diagnosis. RICHARD LAKEMAN and MARY EMELEUS consider the meaning of diagnosis, its place in the ritual of health care, and the practical problems associated with not diagnosing and un-diagnosing. The traditional approach of western medical practice is to undertake an assessment and arrive at the correct diagnosis, which in turn determines the right treatment. Service users present frequently to helping agencies with a diagnosis of mental illness conferred already. This colours the therapeutic encounter and raises expectations of what needs to be done. The therapeutic potential and practical problems of deferring psychiatric diagnosis or ‘un-diagnosing’ mental illness in the context of providing care to people with complex presentations is critically considered. Un-diagnosing mental illness can be an important part of the care encounter as a way of opening a space within which the person’s problems can be considered in a non-biomedical way, or in the final phase of the therapeutic encounter.

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