I recently received the following question from Disparity, on Twitter.
“I’m interested in all your posts, but they’re always telling us what mental illness ‘isn’t.’ Do you have many on what it ‘is’?
I referred him/her to the post There are No Mental Illnesses and received the following reply:
“I have read it a few times. I largely agree with it. But ‘something’ happens to people. Whatever the label.”
Questions of this sort arise fairly frequently, and I thought it might be helpful to write a post.
WHAT HAPPENS TO PEOPLE?
I suspect that underlying Disparity’s question is the notion that “mentally ill” means “crazy,” and that there really are people who seem to be “crazy.” This is, I think, a widely accepted notion. But in the present context, it leads naturally to another question: if they’re not ill, if they haven’t actually contracted an illness, then what has happened to them?
For several years now, it has been confidently stated by government agencies and by psychiatrists that approximately 50% of the population will experience a “mental illness” in their lifetime. That’s half the population! So if we are to believe this, then clearly the individuals embraced by the term “mental illness” are actually very ordinary and unremarkable. It’s you, me, the man next door, the milkman, Auntie Betty, etc., etc.
What has happened to all these people is life. Bad things happen to all of us. Sometimes we don’t cope too well with these challenges, and if we are brought to the attention of the mental health system, we get a “diagnosis” and enter the ranks of the “mentally ill.”
Psychiatry – especially in recent months – claims that they only assign “diagnoses” when the individual’s actions or feelings are extreme. In practice, I suggest that this is not the case. If you go to a psychiatrist and tell him/her that you’ve been feeling very down, that your mother used to feel this way, that she has been doing very well since she started taking an antidepressant, there’s a very good chance that you will be assigned a “diagnosis” and given a prescription – especially if you throw in that you don’t feel like getting up in the morning and that your appetite is poor. And you are now a “mentally ill” person. So what happened? You got to feeling down.
“What happened,” of course, varies from person to person, and from situation to situation. A person who has experienced a truly horrendous situation and has persistent distressing memories may be assigned a “diagnosis” of posttraumatic stress disorder. A misbehaved child may get a “diagnosis” of oppositional defiant disorder. A juvenile delinquent might get a “diagnosis” of conduct disorder. And so on.
Even very young children are fair game for the “diagnostic” net. Children as young as 3 or 4 are being “diagnosed” with bipolar disorder if they display frequent temper tantrums!
THERE ARE NO MENTAL ILLNESSES
When I say that there are no mental illnesses, what I mean is that behavioral and emotional problems are not illnesses. It is frequently suggested that by saying this I am minimizing the significance of these problems. Nothing could be further from the truth. Human problems can be mild, moderate, severe, devastating, and every level of significance in between. But they’re not illnesses.
Psychiatry has promoted the falsehood that they are illnesses (“just like diabetes”) to justify their promotion of pharmaceutical products.
The matter is complicated by the fact that sometimes behavioral and emotional problems do indeed stem from real illnesses. For instance, hypothyroidism can occasionally cause delusions and hallucinations. However, these cases are dealt with by treating the hypothyroidism.
But behavioral and emotional problems can – and I suggest, usually do – arise in the absence of any underlying physical illnesses.
I discuss these general ideas in more detail in the posts on the individual “diagnoses.”