For the past decade I have been conducting psychological testing for various reasons. Sometimes a person wants to know if they have ADHD or a learning disorder. Sometimes we are looking at career options and want to determine if college is a good choice, or maybe if a specific job fits their knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSA’s). Maybe it’s about a legal matter and making recommendations that are useful to an attorney or a probation department. Most often what I do is a diagnostic study to understand whatever is happening and make appropriate treatment recommendations. It’s the answer to the “what’s really wrong with me and what can I do about it” question.
In the course of hundreds of evaluations, something I’ve noticed is a lack of consistency and sometimes an outright lack of agreement among clinicians. Just this month I was beginning a therapy relationship with someone who disclosed every diagnosis along the Autism spectrum. Last month a client presented with “bipolar, major depression, anxiety, ADHD, PTSD, ADD, generalized anxiety, panic attacks, learning disorder.” What a laundry list! How is it possible for one person to have so many labels? How can one person run the gamut of an entire spectrum like Autism or psychosis? It’s more common than you think, and here are a few reasons why.
Point in Time
Any psychological evaluation represents a brief moment in time. Hopefully an evaluator thoroughly reviews your history, including medical and mental health records and prior evaluations. That’s certainly a best practice. It does give us more information (data points) to consider for diagnostic purposes. But even then, your evaluation a single slice in time of what that clinician observed or recorded (testing) on a specific day. Having a bad day? Testing might underestimate your best abilities. Forget your medication? Your mood might be a little more off kilter than usual. Or paying attention might be pretty hard. Leave your glasses at home? Probably going to make it hard to complete testing with speed and accuracy. Or the biggie…did you hold back some information? Sharing all the details is important for an accurate diagnosis.
Even if everything goes just as it should, it’s still entirely possible that a diagnosis can be right in that moment but not really accurate for your daily functioning. Or it might be accurate for problems lasting a few weeks or a few months, but not forever.
Another consideration is that diagnoses can be “moving targets.” There is a lot of overlap in symptoms for various disorders. For example, problems with attention and concretion can be related to ADHD, depression, psychosis, intellectual disability, learning disability, dementia….and on and on. Having mood swings? Could be a bipolar disorder, but it also could be a normal variation of depression or even personality traits. Behavior problems? Might be ADHD, depression, anxiety, Autism Spectrum Disorder, psychosis, personality-related, or a bona fide conduct disorder. See how easily this can all be confused? Yes, we get lots of training in diagnostics (psychopathology), but it takes good rapport and good investigative skills to understand what’s really going on.
This is never more true than with children and adolescents. Symptoms can look very different in young folks. Depression in a teenager often includes irritability, hostility, and acting out. Which can look like an oppositional defiant disorder. Some behaviors could be the result of medications affecting the developing brain. And, quite often, children and teens simply cannot verbalize what is going on the same way you and I can. They try, but they themselves might not understand it in order to explain it coherently.
Treatment = Change (hopefully)
Another consideration is that appropriate treatment really should change diagnostic labels over time. If you are taking medication and engaging in weekly therapy, your depression should get better and eventually that label should go away. Or perhaps your Major Depressive Disorder transitions to a Depressive Disorder NOS and then to nothing at all. ADHD frequently abates over time as the adolescent brain develops into adulthood. But not always, and more and more adults are given a label that traditionally had to be first diagnosed in children.
The biggie here is Autism Spectrum Disorder. With appropriate and consistent treatment (social skills training, therapy, and possibly medication), it is very common for the more severe symptoms related to communication and social interaction to greatly improve to the point it really can be hard to see that a label is appropriate. The same is true for learning disorders. The schools refer to this as “response to intervention” and is now formally measured for those receiving special education services.
Arriving at the right diagnosis can sometimes be pretty straightforward. Other times it feels like I am a detective solving a mystery. The end result will depend on the available information, how willing people are to be open and honest, and the skills of the clinician. It is vitally important that you feel comfortable with the person evaluating you. You are far more likely to be open and honest if you feel safe and secure.
Feel free to contact my office if you keep asking “what’s wrong with me” and it seems like nobody can understand you.