It’s mad to normalise mental illness

Have we normalised mental illness to the point that none of us can be deemed ‘well’?

The social media campaign in response to Asda’s infamously ill-judged Halloween costume ironically enough pointed to society’s acceptance of the realities surrounding mental ill-health. Alternative ‘mental patient outfits’ were tweeted in a mass social media-led rebuttal accompanied by tags such as #timetochange and #endstigma. The fundamental aim being to highlight that anyone can suffer from a mental health problem and that it is nothing to be ashamed of.

Both very important messages to keep hold of, but a little different from what the leading drugs companies and psychology associations seem to be telling us. Their view appears to be that everyone can (make that does) suffer from a mental health problem – and that is probably something to be a bit ashamed of, so here are some drugs to make you feel better. This is in no way to diminish people who suffer from mental ill-health. Or those of us who use medication as a source of support; anti-depressants, anti-psychotics and everything in-between play an extremely valuable role for many individuals. However, that does not mean that they should be distributed carelessly, or that everyone who is going through a tough time is necessarily in need of them.

A recent Daily Mail investigation revealed the ease with which GPs’ write up prescriptions to individuals whose only indicators of ‘depression’ were feeling anxious or suffering a family bereavement. One of the doctors in question said that talking therapies would be more effective after a course of treatment, and did not even put said patient on a waiting list. This haphazard use of medication as a ‘quick fix’ is a worrying development. Even more worrying, however, is what this medication is being used to treat. Prescribing someone drugs to get over bereavement is tantamount to suggesting that grief is not a perfectly natural human emotion, moreover that it is something that needs to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible. Grief is painful, there is no denying that. But it is an expression of the relationship you had with the person who has passed and should, for the most part, be allowed to run its course without medical intervention.

This view, clearly, is not shared by the American Psychiatric Association; their manual, the DSM-V now makes it possible for someone recently bereaved to be diagnosed with depression after just two weeks of mourning. I don’t know about you, but when I lost a close member of the family, it took more than a fortnight for the shock and despair to wear off. Does this make me depressed or simply a perfectly healthy, sensitive human being? Are people who take a shorter or longer length of time to come to terms with their grief any more or less ‘normal’ than I am? Grief like all our emotions is intrinsically individual – we all experience it differently.

Not only are we seeing the tendency for emotions to be deemed ‘illnesses’, there is also a trend (as seen in the DSM-V manual) of significantly lowering the threshold for a whole host of common psychological disorders.  Anxiety is just one of the conditions with which it is easier to be diagnosed than ever before. We are heading in a direction in which every little quirk or eccentricity can be defined as ‘unhealthy’. What if you are naturally quite a reserved person? Are you now suddenly suffering from social anxiety? Or maybe you’re the other extreme, bubbly and vivacious? Should you be put on a course of drugs to calm your case of adult ADHD?

Whilst raising awareness of mental health difficulties is valid and important, by diagnosing (and subsequently ‘treating’) everything that does not fit into the ever decreasing psychological definition of ‘normal’, we risk becoming a homogenous, cookie-cutter society in which difference is not celebrated, but eradicated.

Written by Anna Carnegie. The Social Policy Forum challenges social policy by stealth in the age of the Big Nudge. We are on Twitter @SocialPolicyFor.

Picture by: Alex Proimos