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Why, and how, do we diagnose 'mental illnesses'?

Many people mistakenly believe that psychiatric diagnoses reflect real 'illnesses'; things that 'really' exist. Scientific analysis of the problems that people experience and their relationship to these diagnostic labels suggests that this is an error. Some people do find diagnostic labels reassuring or helpful because they appear to recognise, explain and validate their problems, and (currently at least) often qualify people for help. Some professionals and policy-makers mistakenly assume that we need to use diagnoses in order to allocate resources to those who need them. However, other services - for example many public and social services - achieve this without the need for 'diagnoses'. Many medical and legal professionals, and in particular medical researchers, mistakenly believe that diagnoses are needed in order to allow people to communicate efficiently with one another. However I would argue that here again they are misleading and unnecessary; a simple and direct list of a person's actual experiences and problems would provide more information and communicate much more than a diagnostic label. Of course we need to research into the nature, causes and remedies of problems, but again that does not mean that diagnosis is necessary; I'll explain shortly why researchers would be better advised to study the nature of, causes of and proper response to specific, easily identified problems rather than looking for differences between groups of people with different 'diagnoses'. In order to understand the extent to which psychiatric diagnoses are mistaken and unhelpful we need to look at how 'mental illness' is currently classified. There are two major international classificatory systems for the classification and diagnosis of mental health problems:

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