How Is Mental Illness Tested and Diagnosed?

You've been feeling sad and anxious lately. Is it just a phase or could you be suffering from some type of mental illness? When in doubt, it's always a good idea to see your doctor and get a formal diagnosis.

Evaluating Mental Health Problems

When something seems to be bothering you or your mood and energy level has changed recently, your doctor or mental health practitioner will likely want to perform a diagnostic evaluation to try to get to the root of what ails you. Mental illness can span a wide range from mood and anxiety disorders to personality disorders, among other problems. Some people may also experience a combination of issues, which can make a diagnosis of mental illness more complicated.

Assessing Physical Health

It's also important to know unlike physical illnesses like strep throat and an ear infection, there aren't always concrete signs that can be a clear indicator of mental illness. There are also no specific mental illness tests to confirm the diagnosis. However, there are still several ways that your doctor can narrow in on a mental health diagnosis.

First, since the signs of mental illness can often be non-specific and may mimic many other health issues, the best place to start getting a diagnosis is by having a complete physical exam. This will usually include checking your blood pressure, heart rate, and temperature and also checking your organs to make sure everything is functioning properly. You'll probably also need to undergo laboratory tests to determine whether your thyroid is working right, since thyroid disorders can impact your mood and cause symptoms similar to those caused by mental illness. In some cases, you may also need to undergo a brain scan or neuroimaging scan to look for signs of a brain tumor.

Assessing Mental Health

If the evaluation rules out any obvious physical explanation for your symptoms, your doctor will probably work with a psychiatrist or other mental health counselor to assess your mental state. Such an assessment will often include asking questions about your moods, behaviors, drug and alcohol usage, and quality of life. In addition, your doctor will want to know whether you have any thoughts of suicide or of causing other harm to yourself or others.

Making a Mental Illness Diagnosis

Once your doctor gets a proper handle on your symptoms, he will refer to the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," which is an American Psychiatric Association manual recognized as the standard for diagnosing mental illness. This guide will enable him to narrow in on the specific problem that's affecting you and will help him determine how best to treat the issue. Just keep in mind that a mental health diagnosis can often be a long-term process with much trial and error is involved in getting a proper diagnosis.

A New Diagnostic Technique?

You can also ask about a new blood test still in the testing stage that's been in the news lately that could help doctors to identify key markers that indicate a brewing psychiatric problem, making it possible to treat mental illness at the very earliest stage. While this approach sounds promising, however, many critics don't believe the testing will be reliable enough to be very effective in diagnosing mental illness, so it's unclear how this type of test will impact mental illness diagnosis strategies in the future.

Taking Control of Mental Illness

The good news is that once your doctor identifies your problem, many forms of mental illness will respond well to treatment. Depending on your diagnosis, you may need a combination of psychotherapy and medication. With the right support and treatment plan, you should be able to manage your symptoms and try to keep them from getting in the way of your daily living.


Gray, Richard. "Blood Tests to Diagnose Mental Illness." Telegraph. 17 June 2007. Web. 19 May 2012.

Mayo Clinic. "Mental Illness: Tests and Diagnosis." 1 Sept. 2010. Web. 20 May 2012.

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). "Neuroimaging and Mental Illness: A Window into the Brain." N.d. Web. 19 May 2012. "How is Mental Illness Diagnosed." N.d. Web. 19 May 2012.