Dimensional Diagnosis of Mental Illness

There is a recognition among many of us crazies, as well as the professionals that treat us, that most of us do not simple fall into one camp – we’re bipolar with a hint of ADD; we have a borderline personality disorder with depressive and psychotic features; we suffer from schizoaffective disorder with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and addiction mixed in. Humans are complex, and their brains even more so.

My Depression Isn’t Your Depression

And what’s more, my depression isn’t like your depression. In fact, so much so, that using the same word is almost nonsensical. I sleep 15 hours a day, but you only sleep 3. I have a successful job, but no family or friends. You have neither but participate in online support groups 10 hours a day. I think about killing myself every day but you actually plan for it once a week. You never cry but I cry all the time. Are we the same? Am I more depressed than you, or less?

And things get more complicated when you compare personality disorders and bipolar and ADD and PTSD combined with comorbid conditions like addiction. And yet somehow we’re supposed to suss this all out, find a label, and a treatment that goes with it. That’s pretty tough.

Mental Illness Doesn’t Fit in a Box

The medical community recognizes that mental illnesses frequently occur together and that each person has unique symptoms. More at Bipolar Burble blog.So some doctors would like not to put people in boxes, but to place them on continuums. You would become a multi-dimensional person, probably with severity ratings attached. So, I might be 80% bipolar, with a severity of 7/10, 10% anxiety, severity 3/10, and 10% PTSD, severity 2/10. (The scales used here are coming out of my head, not from any published source.)

And if you know mentally ill people, and you’re educated about disorders, you can see that continuums really do fit more people than boxes do. Boxes are, naturally, self-limiting.

But there are some problems here. Well, too many to count, really. First off, how would you measure how depressed a person is? Or how schizophrenic? Or how bipolar? There are many scales that have been developed for this but there is no standard as none have been proven to be wholly accurate. The scales we do have are more effective at measuring change over time, to tell if you’re getting better or worse, than objectively coming up with a score indicating how much you are of something.

Mental Illness Severity

And severity. Severity is a personal thing. If I can’t work because of a disorder, then naturally that is severe, but it can be just as severe to have nothing in your life but work. Doctors feel that planning your suicide is worse than thinking about suicide but if all you do is think about your death all day long, is that not severe? What if you cut yourself but never really suffer any grave injury, is that severe or not?

It’s personal. Severe to me probably isn’t the same as it is to you. And it probably isn’t the same from doctor to doctor either, so coming up with a measurement is rather difficult.

Mental Illness Definition

But even if we could measure how much of an illness you had, and how severe it was, and we could assign you a magic number that represented all of that, what good would it do? It doesn’t change the treatments we have available. It still doesn’t change the drugs, or the therapies, or the electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), or the vagus nerve stimulator (VNS). All that remains. And as it stands now a doctor might prescribe any medication for any disorder anyway so what’s the point in being so numerically specific? Whether you’re 100% bipolar or 75% with some PTSD doctors are going to try lithium, mood-stabilizers and antipsychotics anyway. It really doesn’t matter.

I applaud a system working to recognize that we’re all different and that through standard diagnoses we almost always get it a little bit wrong, but at this point I just don’t see a way around it. Mental illness isn’t like a burn where you can measure the percentage of skin affected and burn depth. It just isn’t that simple. And maybe one day we’ll know more and we’ll be able to attach numbers to the illness of a brain but unfortunately we’re just not there yet. I suspect until we really have a biological way of identifying issues: 25% excess serotonin, not enough dopamine and so on, we’ll be stuck with the muddy mess of trying to categorize seemingly infinite variations on the human brain. Broad strokes are really the best we can do until not just something better, but something more useful, comes along.


About Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is an award-winning writer, speaker and consultant from the Pacific Northwest. She has been living with bipolar disorder for 18 years and has written more than 1000 articles on the subject.

Natasha’s New Book

Find more of Natasha’s work in her new book: Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. Media inquiries can be emailed here.



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