How many times have you watched a news story or read a headline where a journalist or expert commentator making a statement or writing about an issue related to mental health uses the term “the mentally ill?” What image or thoughts does that bring to mind? For me, it evokes feelings of disgust and frustration over the ignorance associated with using this term as a blanketed reference to all persons who have been diagnosed or labeled with a mental health condition. Many who do not support the medical model of treatment for mental health problems believe mental illness does not exist all together.
This is based on the fact that there is no true science behind mental illness. In comparison to physical health conditions, there are no genetic markers, blood tests, x-rays, cat scans etc. to show evidence of a mental health condition. Therefore all diagnoses are subjective in nature, based on the opinion of a medical professional who assesses based on their own bias as to what psychiatric condition may be present for a particular individual. So, if we look at mental illness strictly from the medical stand point, can we say definitively that a person who has been diagnosed with a mental illness should always be referred to as mentally ill, or that all persons in this category should be referred to as the mentally ill?
The clear and straightforward answer is: no. If someone has been diagnosed with a health condition, which is treatable, we know that they will not continuously experience symptoms of that condition, unless it goes untreated, or worsens. So, if a person experiences a bout of depression, they hear voices which tell them to do or think harmful things, they experience delusions which cause them to lose touch with reality and they seek methods to treat those issues whether they be through psychiatry or some other means of healing, are they mentally ill? Some may agree that the extreme emotional states this person experiences are similar to that of a mental illness and at the time of experiencing them, the person may in fact be mentally ill. However, if that person finds ways to address these extreme states, that allow them to function as any other person similar to them would, they in fact are not mentally ill, when no signs of such illness or extreme state are present.
They are someone who may have been diagnosed with, or shown signs of what many may believe is mental illness. The basic conclusion is that a person can be mentally ill based on their experiences at a present moment in time. However, if they are led to believe that as a person who has had these experiences they are mentally ill, their interpretation and that of others regarding whether these issues can be addressed and making progress is possible, are significantly limited by these narrow and discriminatory labels. So, why the distinction and what is so important about it when discussing popular media and public perceptions?
When we attempt to address problems in our society by bringing to light true stories of people being mistreated, systems failing and incidents occurring which cause concern for the public, we must not create stereotypes which further beliefs that are hateful towards particular groups and discriminatory of those whom we do not know. Making reference to the mentally ill, when covering a story about violence or the harms of our public system, may be drawing attention to the 2% of persons who have been diagnosed with a mental illness who are prone to violence. However, we know from history that many people who may fall into the category of a person with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress have gone on to do great things in this world, perhaps because of their compassion and understanding of human struggle, or level of intelligence that is unique to others who do not have these experiences.
If we are attempting to address problems with mental health in this country, we must not scare people away from getting help for themselves, or reaching out to someone who is struggling for fear of the mentally ill or being labeled as such. What we must first recognize is that every human being has mental health. While most people may not experience hearing voices or extreme mood swings, we all encounter times in our life, sometimes on a continual basis, where we are overwhelmed with feelings of depression and anxiety and we may encounter traumatic incidents that leave emotional scars and engrain painful memories. We also know that regardless of the extent to which your mental health may have a negative impact on your life, it is possible to survive, get better and thrive into the future.
What I would ask those who care about mental health or are tasked with reporting on issues related to it, which deserve public attention: consider the power of your words and how others will interpret them. Think of a time in your life when you struggled, you had a hard time seeing positive in anything, or you were overwhelmed by circumstances that seemed beyond your control. If you yourself recognized at that time that you may have felt mentally ill, would you want to carry that with you into the future because you chose to seek help (possibly from a mental health professional), even after you got better? Would you want others who knew of that rough time in your life, to define you by that experience?
This is something that each individual person has the choice to identify with in the way they feel is best. We all have the freedom, choice and responsibility to care for ourselves in a way that promotes healing, or one that may cause chaos, but as long as we do not hurt others, should who we are be judged by a snap shot in time? If so, how can someone get better when that snap shot in time haunts them, causes them to lose hope and they are led to believe that the only way to get better is to accept they are sick, this will never change and if they don’t take medication, stop working, forget about going to college, live in poverty, they most surely will be mentally ill?
It is not society, media or anybody else’s role to dictate who they are or what defines them with 2 or 3 words that do not explain the person, but the label which is different for everyone. Regardless of what you believe, your moral, cultural or professional views are on health and medical care, consider where those values stem from and if you value human dignity, you may think twice when you hear a story, read an article and examine what that says to you about the way in which we want others to be seen. Now ask yourself: what will you do when you see or hear the words mentally ill? Who do you know that may have personal experience and what do you want others to be aware of when they encounter these words? Take action to support human dignity, not ignore fear and discrimination. Speak out, stand up, take political action and write to your local media.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.