Does everyone with a ‘mental disorder’ diagnosis need treatment?

A study that came out this past summer found that many people diagnosed with substance abuse, anxiety, or depressive disorders recover within a year of diagnosis without treatment. “This study further supports the argument that meeting diagnostic criteria for a mental disorder does not necessarily indicate a need for mental health treatment,” the researchers, led by Jitender Sareen from the University of Manitoba, writes.

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This study, which reviewed data from the Netherlands Mental Health Survey and Incidence Study (NEMESIS, N=5,618), is consistent with past research that indicates that cases of mental distress can be temporary and remit without treatment.

Similar research conducted by some of the same authors of this study found that a substantial portion of individuals diagnosed with ‘severe mental disorders’ no longer met the criteria for their diagnosis one year later, whether they had treatment or not.

The data of this current study reveals that over half of the 5,618 no longer met the criteria for their disorder at follow-up without receiving any mental health services. However, these individuals had lower quality of life compared to healthy individuals.

This data point regarding the lower quality of life is a curious one. The authors portend that it indicates the negative impact on the presence of residual symptoms from the diagnosis. As firm believers in supporting people to pursue meaning and fulfillment in their lives alongside uncomfortable experiences (symptomatic or otherwise), we applaud this research for questioning the common assumption that a diagnosis is a signal for the need for treatment. We also would like to turn the question on its head: must a person need to qualify for a diagnosis in order to engage in therapy?

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