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Over-Medicalizing Suffering Undermines Mental Illness

A point to remember on World Mental Health Day this Sunday.

Key points

  • We need to recognize that there is such a thing as mental illness and that it has nothing to do with unhappiness.
  • There is a risk of trivialising mental illness, but also of over-medicalising normal suffering.

This Sunday is World Mental Health Day, and as such, will be a good day for compassion and support. It will also be the day to promote and recognize the need to fund good mental health care for the masses. The first item to engage in this should be to recognize that there is such a thing as mental illness and it has nothing to do with unhappiness.

Joanne Adela
Source: Joanne Adela

Trivializing Mental Illness

As a psychiatrist with several decades of experience in treating the mentally tormented, I have strong feelings about mental health. I viscerally detest any attempts to trivialize and minimize the horrendous impact poor mental health can have on a sufferer by pretending that patients should be able to cure themselves in a few easy steps. In the old days, we were expected to be able to "pull ourselves together," which was particularly cruel because this was precisely what mentally ill people couldn't do. Mental suffering was seen as a mere lack of moral fibre, which was a particularly serious personal failure if the struggling patient was a man. Now, the same perverse social expectations remain prevalent, but in a different form: in our present culture many believe that mental illness is a "construct", something professionals (particularly psychiatrists) made up in order to justify their roles and exert power over the vulnerable in society. This concept was popularised by the anti-psychiatrists of the 1960s, such as R.D. Laing, and never quite left us completely.

Over-Medicalizing Suffering

While psychiatry-skeptics wrongly trivialize mental illness, others overdo it in the opposite direction, by medicalizing normal human suffering. As a result, we have reached a point in which many appear to see life difficulties and unhappiness as something to be pathologized and treated, when in fact humans are not designed to be happy all the time. In reality, much of our suffering is as normal as it is inevitable. For this reason, it is particularly important that we recognize the crucial distinction that exists between normal distress and mental illness, accepting the former while vigorously treating the latter. Let's not forget and leave behind those who are actually ill in the futile pursuit of the ghost of happiness.

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