Mental Disorder Labels in Children Impact Identity Development

Sophie Isobel examines the moral implications and potential long-term effects on self-identity in children diagnosed with psychiatric disorders, urging deeper reflection on how society approaches child mental health.


At a time when an increasing number of children are being diagnosed with psychiatric disorders, many researchers are advocating for a deeper examination into the broader moral implications of these diagnoses on young minds.

Sophie Isobel, from the University of Sydney, has recently suggested that while these diagnoses can provide a sense of understanding or temporary relief, they might also impart lasting impressions on a child’s self-perception, potentially affecting their self-worth and sense of identity.

Published in the journal Children & Society, Isobel’s article warns of the sustained and significant impacts on children’s lives, especially concerning what they believe to be true, and how they understand themselves.

“Most adults have some choice in how much they incorporate their psychiatric diagnosis into their understanding of themselves, but diagnostic effects may be particularly problematic during childhood when the self is still developing,” Isobel writes.
“Children develop their sense of self experientially and relationally across the developmental years. Self-concept (how people view themselves) and social identity (how they represent themselves in the world) are intrinsically interconnected. Psychiatric diagnosis can pose a threat to both of these processes, minimizing children’s potential to separate socially constructed descriptions of their experiences from their core construction of self and their interactions with the world.”

A surge in the number of children diagnosed with psychiatric disorders has ignited a debate about the broader moral implications of such classifications.

While medical professionals have historically accepted these psychiatric diagnoses, the nuances of identifying mental illnesses in children often differ from the clear-cut physical diagnoses found in other medical specialties. Isobel critically assesses these diagnoses, focusing on their potential long-term effects on children’s self-perceptions and their personal truths. Additionally, she emphasizes the need to consider the moral outcomes of assigning children diagnostic categories steeped in uncertainty.

Isobel’s paper uses Critical Theory to explore how societal and political structures shape our perceptions of reality, particularly in relation to child mental health. The theory encourages us to question established norms, practices, and power dynamics, revealing hidden imbalances and abuses of power. It provides a platform for challenging accepted norms without altogether rejecting or accepting diagnoses.

Childhood, Vulnerability, and the Escalating Concern of Mental Health

Central to Isobel’s argument is the concept of ‘epistemic injustice,’ wherein children, merely by their age, are perceived to have a diminished ability to comprehend or articulate their experiences. Consequently, they face societal prejudices that limit their ability to convey or process their own distress.

Society’s emphasis on protecting children is frequently intertwined with concerns about potential risks. While adults juggle anxieties about an unpredictable future, children, largely powerless, rely on adults to make safety decisions for them.

While children largely depend on adults, they also possess internationally recognized rights, which include entitlements to freedom, safety, and care. However, these rights sometimes conflict with the dominant protective discourse, especially concerning children’s mental health.

This emphasis on children’s mental health isn’t misplaced. Recent statistics are eye-opening: Epidemiological studies estimate that a staggering 10% to 20% of all children worldwide have diagnosable mental health disorders. Alarmingly, despite stable adult diagnosis rates over the past five decades, child diagnosis rates have surged, accompanied by a notable uptick in prescriptions for psychoactive medications, including antidepressants and stimulants.

Diagnosis in Psychiatry: A Nuanced, Contested Terrain

The process of diagnosing mental disorders involves a combination of cultural norms, societal expectations, and professional expertise. In psychiatry, this process primarily relies on checklists of symptoms to identify disorders. However, a significant issue arises due to the subjective nature of these checklists. Although designed to reduce biases and ensure consistency, the disorders identified through these checklists lack scientific verification. There are no biological markers or tests available to confirm their presence.

One of the most debated topics in child psychiatry is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It is one of the most commonly diagnosed childhood mental health disorders in the Western world, but recent data suggests a possible overdiagnosis and over-treatment of ADHD.treatment of ADHD. Notably, children born closer to school entry cut-off dates, thus being younger in their academic year, have a higher likelihood of an ADHD diagnosis. This relationship between developmental maturity and societal expectations clearly illustrates how societal constructs might inadvertently influence disorder diagnosis. Both the educational and healthcare sectors often tie institutional funding to these diagnoses, adding layers of complexity.

When a diagnosis is made, treatments are often recommended, including medication. The use of drugs for children with psychiatric conditions is a topic of debate. While many children report benefits such as improved emotional stability and academic performance, they also express concerns about physical side effects, feeling forced to take medication, losing their independence, and changes in their perception of what is normal.

Family, Power, and Perception in Child Mental Health Diagnoses

Diagnosing mental disorders in children is a complex process that involves various factors such as family beliefs, societal expectations, and healthcare dynamics. Isobel stresses the significance of taking the child’s perspective into account. Even though the United Nations advocates children’s right to express themselves, their views are often filtered through adult perspectives. Their understanding of terms like “mental illness” and their identity after receiving a diagnosis highlights the complex nature of mental health.

Isobel cites previous research, highlighting how children often wrestle with their self-identity following a mental illness diagnosis. For instance, some children perceive the diagnosis positively, feeling it helps others to “be nicer to them.” Conversely, many internalize feelings of being “inferior, inadequate, damaged, incomplete, and undeserving of happiness.”

The Moral Dilemmas of Childhood Psychiatric Diagnoses

Child psychiatric diagnoses often tread a precarious line between societal norms and individual behaviors. Beyond just their clinical implications, these diagnostic labels inherently carry moral undertones, delineating what society deems “right” or “wrong.”

Many of the diagnostic criteria in prominent medical publications like the DSM-5 not only reflect behavioral patterns but also subtly comment on the morality of these behaviors. Terms like “Oppositional Defiant Disorder” and “Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder” link individual pathologies with broader societal contexts, reinforcing the complex interplay of social norms and individual health.

Historically, several behaviors deemed ‘deviant’ or ‘immoral’ have been relegated to the purview of psychiatry until society evolves a broader acceptance or understanding of them. The study raises the example of suicide, which has long been treated as a purely medical issue despite clear societal influences like family conflict, bullying, and social marginalization.

While some of these labels serve as tools for understanding and intervention, their implications on the individual’s perception of self, especially in malleable stages like childhood, can’t be ignored.

In closing, Isobel urges a critical reflection on the ways society addresses child distress. She calls for a renewed commitment to ensuring that children, despite their vulnerable stage of development, are educated about the constructed nature of psychiatric diagnoses. This, of course, requires greater “conceptual competence” from providers and educators.



Isobel, S. (2023). Considering the moral implications of psychiatric diagnosis for childrenChildren & Society00110 (Link)

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Justin Karter
MIA Research News Editor: Justin M. Karter is the lead research news editor for Mad in America. He completed his doctorate in Counseling Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He also holds graduate degrees in both Journalism and Community Psychology from Point Park University. He brings a particular interest in examining and decoding cultural narratives of mental health and reimagining the institutions built on these assumptions.


  1. Please stop DSM defaming and psych drugging the children, hubris filled ladies and gentlemen of the psych industries. Since some, if not most, people do NOT react well to your “wonder drugs,” specifically your anticholinergic drugs. So forcing the anticholinergic drugs on people willy nilly, which is what is currently going on, should NOT be a first course of action in emergency rooms … or PCP’s offices.

    Even after a family member of a loved one, who is actually dealing with a real neurological disease, asks you NOT to put her loved one on an anticholinergic drug.

    But, hey, it only took three days of antipsychotic withdrawal induced mania, to make my 56 year old loved one, who has never before had any psych symptoms, and is an intelligent Northwestern graduate, to become psychotic … and I literally watched it happen. A relatively nice day became incomprehensible word salad right in front of my eyes, to my loved one … thanks to him being forced drugged with an antipsychotic, then abruptly withdrawn from it, against my wishes.

    Yeah for psychiatry, they’ve created another life long patient, for profit … maybe. But I will do my best to prevent that. Encephalitis is a healable disease. And hope and love are the cures, to psychiatry’s and psychology’s hubris filled, pessimistic, force drugging, “invalid,” DSM “bible” belief system.

    Please stop force psych drugging the children, psychologic and psychiatric industries! The psych drugs are neurotoxins. And your industries’ systemic child abuse and rape covering up crimes, via your aiding and abetting the pedophiles, are destroying our nation!

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  2. This article appears to me better than most on psychology here at MIA.

    On that note, one thing the paper does not address and might be important is that it curtails the ability of minors to understand and explain OTHER people’s behaviours. Not just social identify and self identity. That’s another form of epistemic injustice: having no way, even no words, to explain AND understand the world…

    I imagine this:

    “Laura, why is Juanita upset with Carla?.”

    “Well, it seems Jaime prefers to play with Carla instead of Juanita, and that is bad for Juanita because she really likes playing with him. And on top of that, Carlos plays too rough with Juanita when she is not playing with Jaime. So, she is in a tough spot!”.

    Instead of:

    “Well, I watched a talk on the internet that said that maybe Juanita thinks of Jaime as her father, and Carla as her mother. Classic complex!, Juanita is a classical complexed gal!”.

    Or worse yet:

    “Juanita told me her mother told her that her psychiatrist told her she has BPD, and that’s why she feels SOOO, SOOO strongly about it. And as in BPD, she’ll come around. She always does, next week Carla and Juanita are going to be best gals, briefly. And Jaime having ADHD will eventually play with someone else. The problem is Carlos, he apparently, I guess, has Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and that is a problem for all of us, particularly when he does not take his meds, which I guess happens frequently…”

    And on controversy, it was or still is known that many, some, most child psychiatrists never actually see the “patient”, never talk or explore even mentally the child. Let alone explore them physically, i.e. medically, many don’t even ask for a pediatritian opinion, apparently.

    Those checklists refered do not include talking to the child, only “observing” them (in the best case scenario) and acquiring “information” from relatives, parents, guardians and school people.

    That’s something important to mention: some, many, most child psychiatrists never see a child patient as real doctors, as a pediatritian would. They diagnose at the distance, even just by telephone.

    And that has had fatal consequences for some childs that died because of the “side effects” of the medications. Sometimes deliberately or callously overdosed by their parents or guardians.

    Which would have been potentially prevented if the child psychiatrist at least in those cases actually “talked” to the child and SAW the overdoses in the medical office, not on telephone conversation with the convicted, in those cases offender, the now fellon you know.

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    • I’d like to echo your comment instead of starting my reaction from scratch. I agree with everything you’ve said here. I’d like to add that this kind of “blocking” a child from verbalizing their environment almost resembles the society depicted in the book “1984,” with its “ungood” or “unperson” concept. The impact on a developing child is detrimental to their language, critical thinking, and curiosity. As you’ve mentioned, instead of taking a curious approach to describe their friends’ actions, it’s easier to label them with the same terms as their psychiatrist does. Now, imagine this happening for hundreds of years, and you can see how our society has become what it is today. We’ve become less intelligent, less curious, and essentially, we’re just pointing fingers at each other while berating these empty psychological words that, by the way, are not used worldwide. Therefore, when we interact with outside groups, it’s easy to manipulate us because we only see things as “BPD” or “ADHD,” while others are looking at many layers to strategize.

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  3. I can attest to it being harmful in children. I always thought i was anxious because I was being abused morning, noon and night. I had a psychologist who didn’t diagnose me but told my parents to take my brother out of the house since he was abusing me. They fired him and sent me to a bio psychiatrist. I still have a vivid memory of my mother saying ‘oh Ryan, we finally know what’s wrong with you, you just have a chemical imbalance!’ I remember it broke my self image and sense of reality in half. I had no idea whether I was sane or just imagining the abuse to be a factor. Later on in my teens when my brother started giving me concussions and breaking my parents bones I’d always stop and say ‘remember this, they’re still going to tell you you’re crazy for being anxious in this environment.’ Didn’t really help, though, I’m still internally torn every day.

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