The Dangers of Overdiagnosis

The number of mental health diagnoses is increasing, However, not all diagnoses are correct. Here, you can find out about the problem of overdiagnosing.
The Dangers of Overdiagnosis
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 17 October, 2023

You’ve probably noticed that, nowadays, mental health is given greater importance and prominence than ever before. In fact, we’re beginning to talk about our emotions, anxiety, and emotional intelligence on a daily basis and are more open to receiving psychological and psychiatric help. However, this trend is also linked to overdiagnosis.

Today, mental disorders or clinical conditions have been recognized in more than a quarter of the population. It seems that every thought, feeling, or action that we experience is likely to be given a clinical label, ignoring the psychosocial circumstances that could suggest our symptoms are simply natural.

Overdiagnosis isn’t harmless. Indeed, assuming that you’re suffering from a disorder and starting an intervention aimed at eliminating or controlling it – when it doesn’t really exist – can cause you serious damage. For this reason, it’s important to try and understand the problem.

The origins of overdiagnosis

To start with, we need to understand where the tendency to overdiagnose comes from. We also need to realize that it’s not just ordinary people who are predisposed to see themselves as sick. In fact, health professionals are also inclined to make errors when diagnosing.

Sad woman in therapy
An overdiagnosis isn’t harmless, since it can affect the individual in multiple ways.

A perfect dream

As a society, we pursue an unrealistic ideal of the individual. Therefore, those who don’t meet it tend to be branded as having poor mental health. However, this is an unattainable and unrealistic ideal.

After all, nobody embodies perfection in all areas of their life. We’re human, we all have fears and weaknesses, we make mistakes, and we face difficulties in managing certain emotions. This doesn’t mean we’re defective or sick.

A mold that doesn’t embrace diversity and difference

Mental health has become an unwelcoming set of diagnostic categories for the flexibility that reality seems to demand. This phenomenon can be seen when analyzing the overdiagnosis of ADHD in the child population. Some children are naturally more restless, active, impulsive, and disorganized. It doesn’t mean they’re suffering from a disorder.

Individual differences can be extremely large. For example, some children will adapt more to the model of teaching and learning. Others will need another type of stimulation and different dynamics to develop their potential. Both groups are equally healthy and valid.

Lack of empathy due to not considering personal situations

This is a huge problem that often leads to overdiagnosis. It occurs when professionals don’t take into account their patient’s experiences when diagnosing their symptoms.

For instance, losing a loved one is likely to trigger feelings of sadness, while a stifling and demanding job will cause high levels of stress. Should we consider that these individuals are suffering from depression and anxiety disorders? Or, should we understand their symptoms as a natural manifestation in the face of an overwhelming personal situation?

Economic interests

Finally, we should mention that there are often economic interests that encourage more diagnoses to be made than are strictly necessary. Indeed, mental health and the pharmaceutical business are closely linked.

The consequences of overdiagnosis

Now we know where the problem comes from, it’s worth finding out what negative effects it can have on the population. It must be understood that receiving an inappropriate diagnosis is no trivial matter and can actually have serious repercussions:

  • It pigeonholes the patient and makes them identify themselves as sick. This can affect their self-esteem and their motivation to move forward and improve their well-being.
  • It generates self-fulfilling prophecies. When an individual sees themselves as suffering from a certain illness, unconsciously, they might comply with the symptoms of that disease.
  • The individual may maintain unnecessary pharmacological treatment. This can cause significant repercussions due to adverse side effects.
  • Mental illness stigmatizes. It can affect the way an individual perceives themselves and how their environment perceives them.

In short, the negative effects of receiving an inappropriate diagnosis can be extensive and affect multiple areas of an individual’s life. Moreover, they may last over time.

Sad and apathetic woman
An inappropriate diagnosis classifies the individual as ill which affects their motivation and self-esteem.

Avoiding overdiagnosis

Given that overdiagnosis is a rising trend, it’s important that health professionals are aware of the fact. They must begin to apply stricter criteria that encompass the individual in an integral way and take into account their personal reality.

However, the fact that a person doesn’t really have a mental disorder doesn’t mean that they don’t need help. In fact, we can all benefit from therapeutic help to get to know ourselves better, manage our emotions, overcome our fears, and improve our interpersonal relationships.

Finally, we must always be extremely careful before diagnosing ourselves with mental disorders and before assigning this label to others. The impact of doing so can be extremely significant.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Alonso J, Angermeyer MC, Bernert S, et al. Prevalence of mental disorders in Europe: results from the European Study of the Epidemiology of Mental Disorders (ESEMeD) project. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2004; 109(s420):21-7.
  • Gracia Peñas JJ, Dominguez Carral J. (2012) ¿Existe un sobrediagnóstico del trastorno de déficit de atención e hiperactividad (TDAH)? Evidencias en Pediatría. 8:51.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.