Mental illness: the last taboo?
People with mental health problems are the last minority group against whom it’s socially acceptable to discriminate. Sometimes this discrimination comes about accidentally or covertly, Lisa Appignanesi’s recent piece in the Guardian being a case in point. Appignanesi writes that the mental illness ‘industry’ is medicalising normality to a greater extent than ever before. She raises the question of whether the apparent increased prevalence of mental illness is genuinely down to a rising toll of suffering, or whether we have collectively learned to complain more. Appignanesi suggests that the more evidence there is about the increase in mental disorder in the public domain, the more likely we are to label our own problems of living as requiring the attention of a doctor. She goes on to suggest that attending reading groups or going running might do more for sufferers of depression than taking medication and questions the usefulness of psychiatric classification in helping people deal with the problems of their lives.
While I’m sure Appignanesi does not intend to cause offense to people with serious mental health problems, there is a dangerously stigmatising undercurrent to her argument. A distillation of the points she makes might roughly translate as “There’s nothing much wrong with you, you don’t need any pills, pull yourself together.” This might be a useful message for someone who’s struggling slightly with a mild case of the blues, and has the wherewithal and capacity to make a few positive changes in their life. But, for someone with a seriously debilitating mental illness, it is a potentially very damaging message.
‘Mental illness’ is no more a discrete entity than is ‘physical illness’, and no physician would deign to lump diabetes in with cancer when trying to understand patients’ ways of dealing with their illness.
A serious problem which Appignanesi does not attend to, is that the category of ‘mental illness’ is extremely dense. ‘Mental illness’ is no more a discrete entity than is ‘physical illness’, and no physician would deign to lump diabetes in with cancer when trying to understand patients’ ways of dealing with their illness. So, when we talk about mental illness, we might be referring to depression, anorexia, schizophrenia, or any of the other 300 or so disorders in the DSM. Within any one of those diagnostic categories lies a huge variation of patient experience and no two cases of any one of these conditions is ever the same. Just as we all have different pain thresholds, we all have differing levels of resilience to mental distress. But, whatever your threshold, there is a level of serious mental suffering which is as intolerable as the most excruciating physical pain. Within the classification of depression, there exists a whole spectrum of experience ranging from unpleasant but bearable gloom which allows one to continue functioning, right down to crippling despair which makes it impossible to get dressed in the morning or go to sleep at night. For those at the dark end of the spectrum, attending a reading group or going for a run are utterly inconceivable activities, and no substitute for proper medical intervention.
Appignanesi is caustic about the use of antidepressants, and it seems to me that this might be because she has in her mind people who are just a bit down in the dumps rather than those who have a serious mental health difficulty. The ‘definite lift’ Appignanesi tells us participating a reading group provides would certainly not have helped Sandra, a woman I met some years ago, who at that moment was desperately waiting for her annual ECT treatment. She told me that ECT was her lifeline, the only thing that lifted her depression sufficiently to make her life liveable, and that without it she would have killed herself ‘several times over’.
I think the point Appignanesi is really trying to make is that it has become very easy for pretty much anyone to walk into the doctors, have a bit of a moan, and leave with a diagnosis of depression and prescription for Prozac.
I think the point Appignanesi is really trying to make is that it has become very easy for pretty much anyone to walk into the doctors, have a bit of a moan, and leave with a diagnosis of depression and prescription for Prozac. Cultural factors have made it possible for mental illness to be a lifestyle choice. If you can’t be bothered to exercise, eat well, engage in wholesome activities like reading groups, you don’t have to take responsibility anymore because you can just opt for the convenient excuse that you’re ill. Once your GP has agreed that you’re ill, you can slip into the role of patient, and passively wait for treatments to work and experts to make you better. The overlapping agendas of pharmaceutical companies, the health service, and government have come together to feed this situation.
normalising mental illness is a far more urgent priority for social progress than is preventing the medicalisation of normality
Although Appignanesi’s attack of the usefulness of psychiatric classification is understandable, what we need to understand is that there is a difference between everyday, normal suffering and serious mental illness which requires specialist intervention. It is true that deciding on the cut-off point at which normal suffering becomes mental illness can only be determined using subjective means, and that the boundary is inevitably arbitrary. I agree with Appignanesi that there is something crazy about a world in which literally any kind of idiosyncrasy can be identified as a symptom of mental illness, and that there is a complex range of reasons which explain the apparent increase in prevalence of mental disorder. But, we need to exercise caution when drawing attention to these problems because there are real dangers associated with arguing against the medicalization of ‘normality.’ Firstly, that people who are really suffering and genuinely need help are not taken seriously, and secondly that the advantages that come with understanding that mental health is on a spectrum which we all occupy, are lost. Or in other words, that the stigma of mental illness is encouraged. People with mental health problems are routinely discriminated against at all levels, and normalising mental illness is a far more urgent priority for social progress than is preventing the medicalisation of normality.