I recently read an article called “A Mad World” in Aeon Magazine. It explores questions about the nature of mental illness and psychiatry. The part that stood out to me was the author’s suggestion that we could one day view mental illness the same way we view physical illness. After reading it I was inspired to write this on Facebook:
We all accept that we’ll be sick at various points in our lives. We get colds and flus, and someday most of us will get cancer or heart disease. Few of us question or stigmatize this fact of life. So would it be so strange to extend this sense of acceptance to mental illness? Do we not all experience some level of mental sickness at various points—depression, anxiety, and at our darkest moments even delusion or paranoia? Why is mental illness still stigmatized? No one ever felt ashamed for having a cold, why should one feel ashamed for a bout of depression?
I’ve struggled with generalized anxiety disorder, and the biggest part of the struggle was admitting to myself that I had it at all. Imagine if someone refused to admit that they had a cold. That would be madness. And yet this exactly what we tend to do with mental illness. We talk a lot about how that other person—our friend, our co-worker, our distant cousin—has some mental ailment but we rarely see it in ourselves. To do so would be to admit that our minds are as fragile as our bodies. And that frightens us.
But that’s particularly odd because so many of us suffer from mental illness. 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders every year, and 1 in 10 suffer from depression. And these disorders are just the higher functioning end of the spectrum. Having seen these disorders from the inside, I would suggest that anxiety and depression are not too distant from the type of mental illness that puts you in the hospital—paranoia, delusion, and psychosis. Anxiety, for example, can become a kind of delusion, and at the extreme ends your mind imagines things that aren’t really there—”there are germs on this sink that are going to kill me” (OCD), “if I get on an airplane it’s going to crash” (phobia), “the scenes of killing and terror I experienced in the war are happening right now in my bedroom” (PTSD), “my heart is pounding and I can barely breathe I think I’m dying” (panic attack). How are these much different from the type of hallucination a schizophrenic experiences in a psychotic episode? In any of these cases your mind has become unhinged. In any of these cases your ability to function normally has been siginificantly impaired.
I can’t help wondering what kind of a society we’ll become if psychiatrists continue diagnose us but we continue to ignore them. There are two responses to psychiatry I tend to hear from people, one is political and the other philosophical: 1) The psychiatrists and the pharmaceutical companies are engaged in a conspiracy to overmedicate us and make us a “prozac nation.” And 2) There’s really no such thing as mental illness, everyone has “free will” and can control all of his or her choices in life, so if you’re depressed or anxious it’s your fault and you just need to grow up. Both of these opinions are, dare I say it, insane. But I suspect they are pervasive ideas. I suspect that most people think of mental illness as something that “other people” deal with, and that their own mental and emotional problems—sadness, worry, anger—are just the “challenges of life,” or worse, some kind of beast within that must be conquered.
Meanwhile, epidemiological studies suggest that at least half of the US population will experience a mental disorder at some point in their lifetimes. How much more evidence do we need to consider ourselves susceptible to it? It’s true that part of being alive requires taking the risk that you will be uncomfortable, anxious, sad, angry, and sometimes even delusional or self-deceived. But how much of these neuroses are tolerable within a productive life? How sad and angry do we have to be while working our jobs and taking care of our children? I think the answer is, far less than most of us are.