One of the things one tends to do when in another city is use public transport. And so it was that I was waiting for a train at Sydney Town Hall Station when the billboard caught my eye.”7 out of 10 Australians will suffer a mental health illness” was the headline. Below the headline was a diverse looking group of people with thought bubbles above their heads.
Amongst the thought bubbles were things like, I am stressed at work, I am grieving for my mother who died, I have mortgage stress and I feel anxious at times. The billboard was promoting a charity, which amongst other things provides support for people with “mental health problems”.
There is an increasing tendency for a variety of medical groups, patient support groups and charities to make problems look bigger than they are so that they can get attention or raise money. To do so however, they reclassify normal parts of human emotion as an illness to boos the numbers and create a sense of crisis. In turn those who create the crisis stand ready to solve it with donations from the public.
If it is not a mental health illness to feel happy when you win a lottery why is it an illness to feel sad when a loved one dies. If it is not an illness to feel nervous before performing on a stage, why is it an illness to feel anxious sometimes? Stress in relation to work or finance is a normal response depending on the circumstances and is not an illness.
In a similar vein eating disorder “experts” are warning that anorexia nervosa is more prevalent than being reported. Part of the basis for this is that ninety per cent of teenage girls have allegedly been on a diet. The experts warned of an “alarming” number of young people developing eating disorders as they battle obesity.
Being on a diet is not the same as anorexia and people “battling” obesity are unlikely candidates for anorexia which in fact has nothing to do with food and is all about control issues. However “alarming numbers” and “experts” makes for great headlines, as did the claim that one in 10 women will develop an eating disorder.
One question though. How did they define eating disorder? Depending on the definition you could widen it to nine or even ten out of ten women.
Meanwhile it has been shown that Australians are being prescribed antidepressant medication for reasons other than those for which the drugs have marketing approval. This is particularly the case in the elderly. In the USA increasing prescribing rates for antidepressants over the last decade has not improved the overall mental health of the populace.
So here is the problem. Feeling stressed or down or a bit anxious is not the same as a mental illness. Conditions like anxiety and depression represent one end of a spectrum of human emotion and behavior. Labeling every emotion as a disease is good for sales of medications, for groups seeking to raise funds and for academics pushing research agendas.
It is not good for people. Reclassifying normal human emotion and experience as a disease portrays people as victims in need of the support offered by those raising the monies or selling the medication. As soon as you are not a victim you are in control of your own destiny and may not need the “support”.
None of this is to deny that some people have genuine mental health illness and need support and in some instances medication. It is to say that it is easy to reclassify human emotion and behavior as an illness and that doing so can be very profitable.