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Mental Health

When You're Diagnosed with a Mental Illness


Author: Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division


photo of a man in a front squat

If you feel unwell, talking to your doctor or other health professional is an important first step. You may receive a diagnosis that tries to describe your health problem and provides some answers. But if you're diagnosed with a mental illness, you may end up with more questions than answers. You might wonder why this has happened to you and how a diagnosis will affect your life. Receiving a diagnosis may be a difficult experience, but it's important to remember that you are not your diagnosis—you are a person who happens to be dealing with a mental illness.

The medical system may not be the only way to deal with mental health problems. You don't have to adopt a strictly medical point of view—some people find it helpful, but others don't. But you will likely have to work with people in the medical system, such as doctors and mental health professionals, to access treatments and other forms of support.


Why me?

When you're diagnosed with a health problem, particularly a long-term health problem, it's normal to feel many different things. Sudden signs of a mental illness may be very frightening. Even if you've suspected a mental illness for some time, hearing the diagnosis from a doctor can still be troubling. The way your health professional investigated your problem and explained the diagnosis to you can also have a big impact on how you feel about it. Many people feel some combination of:

  • Relief—My problem has a name, and now I know why I'm not feeling well.

  • Hope—I can find a treatment that works. Now I can figure out how to cope with this.

  • Fear—I'm scared of what I think my diagnosis means.

  • Shock/Denial— This can't be happening. Not me.

  • Shame—This is a reflection on who I am as a person. I feel flawed.

  • Confusion—I don't understand what all of this means. I don't think my diagnosis matches how I see the problem.

  • Anger—Why did this happen to me?

  • Guilt—How did this happen? It's my fault.

  • Grief—My life will never be the same. I feel like I've lost myself.

  • Loss of control—I feel powerless. I don't know what to do. I don't see how I'll ever cope with this.

Being diagnosed with a mental illness can be extra hard. You might have difficult thoughts around the diagnosis. On top of that, you may also be dealing with the difficult feelings like guilt and self-blame that are part of many mental illnesses themselves. You may also worry how others will react.

With time, you will become an expert on your own mental health. But early on, all of the information can be confusing or even conflicting. All you need to know is that it's okay to feel like you aren't sure how a mental illness fits with your life, and that it's okay to take time to figure everything out. Most importantly, you are not alone.

Is it my fault?

It's easy to wonder if you caused a mental illness yourself. Close family members may also blame themselves. No one is immune from mental health problems. It isn't a moral weakness or a flaw in your character. Just like other health conditions, it's very rarely due to one specific thing.

Why did it take so long to get a diagnosis?

It can take a long time to diagnose a mental illness. It may have taken some time for you to realize something was wrong and find help. Next, your mental health professional must carefully look for clues based on your information. They may not give you a diagnosis until they understand how you feel. For some mental illnesses, symptoms usually have to affect you for a period of time or follow a pattern, which can add to the length of time it takes to receive a diagnosis. Your doctor may also have to see if any other physical health problems may be adding to your mental health problems. Finally, your mental health professional will consider what's going on in your life before they make a diagnosis.

Why do I have different diagnoses?
  • You are diagnosed with more than one mental illness—It's common for people to have more than one mental illness at the same time. For example, depression can go along with other mental illnesses.

  • Your diagnosis changes—A diagnosis can change over time or when there's new information. Your mental health professional may uncover symptoms that point to a different diagnosis. You may be diagnosed by someone with less experience recognizing your particular group of symptoms or someone who didn't spend a lot of time asking you questions. Also, the guidelines used to diagnose mental illnesses may be updated from time to time, so the criteria used to make a diagnosis may change and the names or groupings of mental illnesses may change.

What if I don’t agree with my diagnosis?

Some people feel like their diagnosis doesn't fit with the way they see their problem. For some, it may be that the diagnosis is inaccurate. But others still feel like it doesn't fit, even after everyone has worked hard to find an accurate diagnosis.

During the early stages of any mental illness, people find a way to understand their symptoms. You may have thought that you were just more tired than usual in the early stages. People around you may reinforce those understanding. If your diagnosis changes, you may feel like your initial understanding makes more sense. Figuring out how any diagnosis fits with your life is a process that takes time. With a new diagnosis, you may have to start the same process over again. Feelings or assumptions like shame or fear can also make it hard to agree with a diagnosis.

Access to specialized health care programs or services is often based on a diagnosis. Even if you don't fully agree with it or understand the decision right now, a diagnosis can be a useful way to try different treatments and access health care providers.


What now?

A diagnosis is only a starting point. Even if you suspect that you've been living with a mental illness for a long time, you likely need more information to help you on your recovery journey. This information will help you figure out what you need to do to rebuild and maintain well-being.

Learning about mental disorders

You might already know the basics of your diagnosis, like what the symptoms look like. If you don't know the basics, you need to ask questions from professionals and groups you trust. At some point, you'll need to go beyond the basics, like:

  • How this mental illness may affect your life and what you can do about it

  • What treatments and supports are available

  • What you should expect in treatment and recovery

  • How you can help improve your recovery

You can learn about mental illnesses from your health care provider, support group, community organizations, or on your own through books or websites. For more on finding quality information on mental health topics, see your info sheet Evaluating Mental Health and Substance Use Information at

Telling others

Once you've received your diagnosis, you may wonder if you should tell others in your networks such as your family, friends or colleagues. There may benefits and risks to disclosure in different areas of your life. For example, telling your workplace or school that you have a disability may allow you to make changes that help you work or study more effectively, but it can also open you to stigma and discrimination. For more on disclosing a disability (including a mental illness) at work, find Disclosing Your Disability: A Legal Guide for People with Disabilities in BC from Disability Alliance BC at

Thinking about treatment, recovery and beyond

It may take time to find the exact combination of treatments and support for you, but you can expect to feel better.

Most people talk about recovery in terms of managing symptoms so they can live well without letting your illness get in the way. Everyone's recovery journey looks different. Some parts may take a long time, while others will pass quickly. You may even take a few steps back from time to time. What matters is being kind to yourself, working on your health in a way that makes sense to you, and seeking extra support when you need it.


Activity: Thinking about your diagnosis

As this sheet has described, you may be feeling a lot of shock and confusion. If you can't stop thinking about your diagnosis, or if you feel worse or scared, a little bit of writing can help you process things better.

Writing your thoughts, concerns, questions and goals down can be a very helpful tool to help you make sense of your diagnosis and what you're going to tackle next. Working it out by writing can also help you describe what you're going through to loved ones or health professionals. Also, if you need to access different services and supports, various professionals may start to ask you about your diagnosis, including who provided the diagnosis and when it happened. Writing things down can help you remember what you've been told. If you add your thoughts and concerns too, writing can help you see your own progress over time in your recovery journey.

Step 1

Before you can be expected to deal with your diagnosis, you need to be able to put your diagnosis into words.Answer the following questions in your journal:

  • What diagnosis were you given?

  • Who provided you with the diagnosis?

  • When was it given to you (date)?

  • Did anyone else confirm this diagnosis? when?

  • What investigations were done to arrive at the diagnosis?

  • In lay words, what does this diagnosis mean? What does it involve?

  • What questions did you ask after you were given the confirmed diagnosis?

  • If you can remember, what answers were you given for your questions?

  • How much did you already know about your illness? Little? Some? A lot?

  • What attitudes and assumptions did you have about people with the same diagnosis before this?

  • How much do you accept this diagnosis? Fully, Unsure, Don't accept it?

  • How much does it make sense with what you were experiencing?

  • Do you plan to share your diagnosis with loved ones?

  • If so, what will you say? to whom? when?

  • It's important to be kind to yourself during times of stress. What things are you doing—or what are you going to start doing now—for yourself as a result of this diagnosis?

Step 2

Now that you have identified the diagnosis, you're ready to think about how you're handling it. Answer the following questions in your journal:

  • How well do I handle questions from my loved ones about my condition?

  • How well do I relate to the professionals involved in my care?

  • How comfortable would I feel in contacting a mental health organization or support group for help?

  • How much hope do I have for the future? How realistic is it?

  • How much support do I feel from my loved ones in handling the reality of my diagnosis?

  • What hardships or roadblocks do I foresee in getting the best care for myself?

Step 3

Once you have assessed how you’re handling your diagnosis, you’re ready to develop a plan of action for yourself. Write this plan of action in your journal:

My Plan of Action to Handle my Diagnosis

  • The diagnosis I have is:

  • My next appointment with my health professional is:

  • I will get answers to the following questions about the diagnosis:

  • I will seek to become fully aware of the full details of the diagnosis and long-term outlook by (date):

  • I will get answers to the following questions I have about treatment:

  • I will perform the following tasks to help myself:

  • I will connect with (person, people, groups) to get support when I need it:

  • I will look after my health by doing my best to:

  • I will reassess these goals every (period of time). My first review date will be (date):

If this exercise doesn't help

If you continue to have a hard time coping with a diagnosis, it's a good idea to reach out for help. You could talk to a mental health professional like a counsellor, a support group for people with depression, or a trusted friend or family member.

This journal exercise has been adapted from Tools for Coping with Life's Stressors by psychologist James J. Messina, PhD and Constance M. Messina, PhD.


Where do I go from here?

If you're having a hard time coping with your diagnosis, you may want to consider outside help. Here are some places to look:

  • A trusted friend or family member

  • Your family doctor or nurse practitioner

  • A mental health organization like the Canadian Mental Health Association

  • An online support group

  • A crisis line

  • A private counsellor, therapist, or psychiatrist

  • Your local mental health clinic or centre (you may need a doctor's referral)

Your doctor or mental health professional can recommend resources in your community. In addition to professional resources, you may find non-professional support helpful. If you feel comfortable talking about your diagnosis, trusted family members or friends may be able to offer help and support. Here are some other places to look for help:

BC Partners for Mental Health and Substance Use Information

Visit for more info sheets on mental illnesses and other mental health topics, self-tests and personal stories. You can also find info sheets on working with your health care provider and preventing relapse. The BC Partners are made up of the following seven mental health and substance use organizations in BC. They offer information, resources and connection to community resources across the province.

  • Anxiety Canada: Visit or call 604-620-0744.

  • BC Schizophrenia Society: Visit Call 1-888-888-0029 (toll-free in BC) or 604-270-7841 (in Greater Vancouver).

  • Canadian Mental Health Association BC Division: Visit or call 1-800-555-8222 (toll-free in BC) or 604-688-3234 (in Greater Vancouver).

  • Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research: Visit For referrals to substance use supports and services, contact the Alcohol and Drug Referral Service at 1-800-663-1441 (toll-free in BC) or 604-660-9382 (in Greater Vancouver).

  • FamilySmart: Visit Call 1-855-887 8004 (toll-free) or 604-878-3400 (in Greater Vancouver).

  • Jessie's Legacy eating disorders prevention, a Family Services of the North Shore Program: Visit or call 604-988-5281.

  • Mood Disorders Association of BC, a branch of Lookout Housing + Health Society: Visit or call 604-873-0103.

Support groups

Support groups are an important way to find support and information. They may help you feel less alone and more connected, even if you haven't told many others about your diagnosis. You can find support groups in your community through mental health organizations in your community, like those listed above. You can also find support groups online. For more on choosing the right support group for you, see the info sheet Choosing a Support Group that's Right for You at

This the first module in a three-part series. The other two modules are Working with your Doctor When You Have a Mental Illness and Preventing Relapse of a Mental Illness.


About the author

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The Canadian Mental Health Association promotes the mental health of all and supports the resilience and recovery of people experiencing a mental illness through public education, community-based research, advocacy, and direct services. Visit


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