Prognosis vs. Diagnosis in Mental Health

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The terms prognosis and diagnosis are often used in mental health. While they are sometimes confused, they have different meanings. A prognosis is a prediction about the course that a condition will take. A diagnosis, on the other hand, identifies the condition that is associated with a set of symptoms. 

A diagnosis identifies a person's current condition, whereas a prognosis describes the condition's implications for future health.

What Is a Prognosis in Mental Health?

People often confuse the terms prognosis and diagnosis. The difference between the two is that while a prognosis is a guess as to the outcome of treatment, a diagnosis is actually identifying the problem and giving it a name. Simply put, a prognosis is a prediction, whereas a diagnosis states what's already there.

When making a prognosis, healthcare professionals are trying to predict:

  • How long symptoms will last
  • The likely outcome
  • How the condition will progress
  • How symptoms might change over time
  • Whether symptoms will improve, worsen, or stay the same
  • How quickly symptoms will progress
  • Possible complications a person might experience

A prognosis also makes predictions about how a condition will affect a person's quality of life. It is used as a best guess for how the condition will affect your life in the future.

How a Prognosis Is Determined

Healthcare professionals often rely on statistics about condition outcomes in order to make a prognosis about any given condition. Because a prognosis is based on how people tend to do on average, it means that it isn't necessarily written in stone. 

A doctor or mental health professional may use a variety of assessments and methods to help them make a prediction about the course of a mental health condition. Lab tests, medical history, psychological assessments, diagnostic criteria, and symptoms severity can also influence how they determine an individual's prognosis.

A variety of different factors can also affect a person's prognosis. These factors include:

  • Age at onset: With some conditions, early-onset may predict worse outcomes. For example, people who have early-onset schizophrenia in which symptoms emerge prior to age 13, typically have a poor prognosis.
  • Sex and gender identity: Some conditions affect men and women differently. For example, depression may present differently in men than it does in women.
  • Medical history and possible comorbidities: It is not uncommon for people to have more than one mental health or medical condition at the same time, which can complicate both diagnosis and the course the conditions take.
  • Type and severity of symptoms: Acute onset predicts a better prognosis than if your symptoms a gradual.
  • Nature and duration of symptoms: The presence of certain symptoms may be indicative of a more severe course of symptoms going forward. Symptoms that have been present for a long period may also indicate that the condition will be persistent.
  • Treatment response: Past and current responses to treatment can also affect a person's prognosis. If past treatments have failed or if the current treatment does not produce an adequate response, it might indicate a worse condition course.

A healthcare or mental health professional will also want to know about the type of social support you have in your life, which can have a significant impact on your prognosis. People who have good interpersonal relationships and a strong social support system tend to fair better.


Prognosis is a best guess about the future course and impact of a condition, but that doesn't mean it is set in stone. Individual prognosis with any condition can depend on a variety of factors including your medical history, general health, severity of symptoms, sex, age, and lifestyle factors.

Types of Prognoses

The following categories of prognoses are typically used:

  • Excellent: This indicates that there is a strong likelihood that the person will fully recover with minimal detrimental impacts on their functioning and quality of life.
  • Good: This implies that a person has a good chance of responding well to treatment and will have a good quality of life in the future.
  • Fair: This prognosis would indicate that a person may have some response to treatment, but that their condition will likely have a notable impact on their life and ability to function.
  • Poor: This indicates that their condition is unlikely to improve and that their quality of life will be significantly affected.
  • Guarded: A mental health professional may use this term when they don't have enough information to predict the outcome.

Why Prognosis Is Important

Understanding prognosis can be important for a number of different reasons.

  • Having a prognosis can help people to feel informed about their health
  • It creates a base for future health and treatment decisions
  • It allows people to plan for their future
  • It can ease anxiety by letting people know what they may expect going forward
  • It can give some idea of what treatment strategies or options are available.

Prognosis may be given before any treatment is undertaken so that the individual can weigh the benefits of different treatment options. In some cases, the treatment approach a person pursues may affect their prognosis, so such guesses can inform which treatments people opt to pursue.

A Word From Verywell

Everyone is different and the course of your own condition may vary depending on a wide variety of factors. Your doctor or therapist can give you an educated guess. However, it is important to remember that this guess is not a guaranteed outcome. Working with a trusted medical or mental health professional can help you or your loved one understand what to expect and make plans to manage your mental health condition.

If you or a loved one are struggling with a mental health condition, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is prognosis only done at diagnosis?

    A prognosis may be provided at diagnosis, but it can also be updated over time as more information becomes available about how a person will respond to treatment. It may also be changed in a person's symptoms grow worse or suddenly change.

  • What is a prognosis statement?

    A prognosis statement contains predictions about the outcome of a person's condition and the expected course the condition is likely to take. This statement may be included in a therapists notes, in a patient assessment, or in their treatment care plan.

  • What does prognosis with treatment mean?

    Prognosis with treatment refers to how a person is expected to fare if their condition is treated appropriately. In most cases, a person's prognosis is much better if they receive treatment than if their symptoms are left untreated.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Remschmidt H, Theisen F. Early-onset schizophrenia. Neuropsychobiology. 2012;66(1):63-9. doi:10.1159/000338548

  3. Martin LA, Neighbors HW, Griffith DM. The experience of symptoms of depression in men vs women: Analysis of the National Comorbidity Survey ReplicationJAMA Psychiatry. 2013;70(10):1100-1106. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.1985

By Kathryn Rudlin, LCSW
Kathyrn Rudlin, LCSW, a writer and therapist in California specializes in counseling and education for teenagers with mothers who are emotionally disconnected.