Note: Starting at the top of this year, I invited folks to ask me questions that I would answer. I view my “answers” as points in informed discussion rather than “look no further. All you need is HERE” responses – particularly on things that are less about me personally and specifically. Which is not to say I don’t mean or stand behind my answers. ‘Cause I do.
Question: “Is mental illness an actual disorder or is it just a "mind thing” -Margaret
Answer: Mental illness is real. Yes.
It’s also a mind thing. It’s like asking if the common cold is real or if it’s just a “body thing.” The cold is a real condition of the body just as mental illness is a real condition of the mind.
I think what this question is trying to touch on is the notion people get that you can just take a deep breath and decide not to have or be affected by disorders of the mind. I think it also touches on concern that perhaps we try to over-pathologize behaviors and processes of the mind. Take for instance the news that, according to the DSM-V (the 5th edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), more than 25% of Americans each year will have a diagnosable mental disorder, and 46.4% in the US will have one in their lifetime. I can see how that would sound outrageous and exaggerated. But, for starters, less than 6% of people will have a severe mental illness in one year, so most of these aren’t severe cases. And let’s look at this another way.
Respiratory infections/disorders are pretty common, right? I mean, one of them is called “the common cold” for Pete’s sake. But you also have strep throat, asthma, bronchitis, COPD, pneumonia, flu. How many people do you know who have had at least one of these throughout life? Most? Maybe all? Sometimes you catch a moderate case of the flu then you get over it. Maybe you just catch it once and never again in life. Maybe you get it a couple times. That’s like the 25% a year and 46.4% in life who get mental disorders. Maybe you get a pretty serious case of the flu that requires hospitalization for you to bounce back. Or maybe you live with severe persistent asthma or COPD. That’s like the 6%
I had a chronic problem with sore throats for about a decade. For the first 2 or 3 years I went to a doctor – who I didn’t feel really took me seriously – who never gave a specific diagnosis (I suspected something tonsil-y) and just prescribed painkillers and antibiotics. I stopped going to him and just treated myself whenever the soreness would pop up – several times a year. In late January 2012 my throat nearly swelled shut and I ended up at the doctor (a different one), then the ER, then admitted to the hospital with a specific diagnosis: peritonsillar abscess. Just the diagnosis (not to mention draining the pus, giving me pain meds, and the IV of saline after 3.5 days of dehydration) was a relief. About a month after I got out of the hospital, I had a tonsillectomy/adenoidectomy. Though I ended up in the ER for the severity of my right tonsil, the ENT who treated me and performed my surgery said my left one was in worse shape from years of infections, and they were both so bad she was amazed I had made it that long going through that pain repeatedly.
If someone had come up to me the days before I went into the hospital or had the surgery and said “Well, I had a cold or a sore throat, and I didn’t miss a beat. I just think you’re doing too much. You’re milking this”, that’s how I think people often come at mental illness. People imagine because they, too, have problems or have felt unhappiness/unease/fear
(so… you’re alive then) they understand what living with/through mental illness is, thus attempt to erase mental illness as an actual condition requiring some form (or some more intense form) of intervention. (Even people who have lived through/with mental illness do this minimization. Internalizing the stigma.) But things like panic disorder, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, PTSD, schizoaffective disorder, autism spectrum disorders, social anxiety disorder, etc. are real and more than just feeling sad or disappointed or aloof sometimes. And, like illnesses of the body, they require acknowledgement and individualized treatment without shaming so we can alleviate the illness or allow people to function with it.
Some media on mental illness:
“Mental Health for All by Involving All” (video) TEDTalk by Vikram Patel
“What’s So Funny About Mental Illness?” (video) TEDTalk by Ruby Wax (note: she makes a brief Tourette’s reference that feels problematic to me, but I’ve included this video because as her personal testimony on having mental illness and our attitudes about it)
“Minority Mental Health” (video) by The Texas Tribune
“He Wont Take His Medicine | The Stigmatization of Persons with Mental Illness in Minority Communities” (blog) by Valentino Valenciaga
“About My Brother | Mental Illness Awareness in Minority Comunities” (video) by Valentino Valenciaga
“Minority Mental Health Awareness” (video) by Eight, Arizona PBS