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What Is an Unspecified Diagnosis?

When kids are struggling, but specific diagnoses don’t quite fit

Sometimes children receive a mental health or learning disorder diagnosis that is labeled as “unspecified.” For example, instead of being diagnosed with a particular anxiety disorder like separation anxiety disorder or social anxiety disorder, their diagnosis might say “unspecified anxiety disorder.”

An unspecified diagnosis is used when a clinician has determined that a child’s challenges fall within a certain group of disorders, but it’s not clear exactly which diagnosis in that group best suits the child.

Unspecified diagnoses are not just for children. Adolescents and adults can receive unspecified diagnoses as well.

Sometimes clinicians use unspecified diagnoses when a child needs care but there’s not time for a full evaluation. This might apply in urgent situations like emergency room visits.

In non-emergency situations, these diagnoses are used when the clinician needs to see how the child’s symptoms develop before making a more specific diagnosis. Especially if the child’s symptoms started recently or if they are relatively mild, it can take time to understand exactly what the child is experiencing and how their symptoms affect their life. Waiting to make a more specific diagnosis also lets the clinician gather more information about the various factors that might affect the child’s symptoms — such as substance use, medical conditions, or environmental factors like stress at home.

Often, a clinician will make an unspecified diagnosis with the goal of making a more specific diagnosis later. However, unspecified diagnoses can also be helpful for kids who are clearly struggling but who don’t exactly meet the criteria for a more specific disorder, even after some time has passed.

Kids with unspecified disorder diagnoses can often get the same kinds of treatment as kids who have been diagnosed with specific disorders, and insurance is just as likely to cover that treatment.

Unspecified disorders that children and teenagers can be diagnosed with include:

  • Unspecified anxiety disorder
  • Unspecified depressive disorder
  • Unspecified behavior disorder
  • Unspecified attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Unspecified bipolar disorder
  • Unspecified obsessive-compulsive or related disorder (OCD)
  • Unspecified feeding or eating disorder
  • Unspecified tic disorder

There is also a similar set of diagnoses known as “other specified” diagnoses, which you can learn more about here. The difference is that an “other specified” diagnosis has to be very close to meeting the criteria for a specific disorder, and the clinician has to explain why it doesn’t quite meet the criteria.

You might also see diagnoses that use the term “NOS,” which stands for “not otherwise specified.” This terminology comes from a previous version of the DSM, the manual that clinicians use to make diagnoses. NOS diagnoses were officially discontinued with the publication of the DSM-5 in 2013, but some clinicians may still use them. NOS diagnoses work the same way as unspecified diagnoses in practice.