Does Everyone Have a Mental Illness?
By: Natasha Sharma, M.Sc., CCPA
Director, Relationship Expert, and Doctoral Student
Psychotherapy & Assessment Services
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Toronto, Ontario, M9B 6H7
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The answer to this question of course is ‘No.’ Nevertheless the percentage of people diagnosed and dealing with a mental illness increases with each passing year. Certainly over the years, due to advances in society and technology, we have become more aware of the biological and psychological markers of mental illness, and more willing to recognize it. Another reason put forth to explain the rise of mental illness is the idea that we currently live “in more difficult times” than previously. I don’t agree with this. The reality is we now live in arguably the easiest times in the course of human history, and we seem to have lost some of our “toughness.” But I’ll save that last point for another article. Sure, we have our fair share of problems (faster pace of life, career burnout, environmental concerns), but I wouldn’t trade these problems in for the ones our ancestors had (such as world war and widespread disease) any time soon. And we are no more pre-disposed to mental health issues now than we were then. So what is really going on here? Are we all getting sicker? Or do we simply need to understand the difference between a mental illness and a normal response to the experience of life? I think it’s the latter.
One of the main reasons for the increase in mental illness is the current system of classification and diagnosis, which makes it easy for many (if not most) of us all to meet the conditions for at least one mental illness at some point in the life span. But here’s the thing: In life, sometimes extremely negative emotional responses are supposed to occur. They have context, make sense given the situation, and therefore should be considered “normal.” A good example of this is what happens after the loss of loved one. Loving someone means attachment. And losing an attachment results in pain. The ability to feel pain is the price of love. So a person grieving the loss of a loved one is in pain, and usually demonstrates behavior that is similar to that seen in clinical depression (feelings of intense sadness, loss of energy and appetite, fatigue, withdrawal, etc.). If the person behaves this way for a period of 2 weeks or more, today they would qualify for a diagnosis of depression. But is it? Wouldn’t most of us feel and behave the same way after losing a loved one, for at least 2 weeks and probably longer? And if we do does that make us depressed…or simply human? My bereaved clients often tell me that they need to “snap out of it, be happy, and move on.” And my response to them is to do the opposite. For hundreds of years, cultures around the world have designated rituals and periods of time dedicated to mourning following the loss of loved ones. They understood that depressed mood is normal when grieving, and allowing oneself the time to acknowledge, embrace, and endure (not fight) those negative feelings is the body’s natural way of emotional healing. We seem to have lost sight of that, at least in some of our responses to life events.
Another, albeit relatively new, example is that of designating children who have regular tantrums with “Intermittent Explosiveness.” I don’t know about other parents, but I can’t think of a single toddler I know that wouldn’t meet the criteria for this. A certain amount of sporadic tantruming is developmentally appropriate for children under the age of 5, and it can be very difficult to accurately pinpoint when it crosses over into an actual illness.
Simply put, a mental illness is a pervasive pattern of thought, emotion, and behavior that drastically impairs a person’s functioning on a regular or recurring basis. That is to say it persistently interferes with their ability to do things such as sleep or eat adequately, keep up basic hygiene and grooming, take care of life administration (i.e. pay bills, stay organized, manage ones household), attend and perform at school or work, and form meaningful and lasting relationships with others. Anything else can pretty much be chalked up to an over-reaction, an under-reaction, or in some cases even, a normal reaction.
As a Toronto Psychotherapist and Counsellor, my personal approach is to normalize the experiences of my clients as much as possible.I think we have become a culture that seeks to pathologize the human condition. Mental illness is obviously serious stuff. But the reality is our susceptibility to it remains about the same as it always has been, and most of us will not experience it. But all of us will experience the ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ life offers: The joyous moments, the grippingly sad ones, and everything in between, the positive emotions, and the negative ones. We need to embrace them all, at the right time and in the right amount. And now if you’ll excuse me I need to end this article; my 20-month old son is throwing a fit. His sippy cup has fallen behind the sofa.