The first thing we need to establish is that there’s a difference between mental health and mental illness. Everyone has mental health and it’s really important that everyone does their best to look after it. Not everyone has mental illness.
I felt a bit guilty about writing that, as though I’m gatekeeping the mental illness thing and saying that it’s only me who can be mentally ill. It’s not. I’m not. It’s true that most people don’t have a mental illness, in the same way that most people don’t have diabetes. Sure, you might feel faint from low blood sugar once or twice in your life, but that doesn’t mean you can claim to have a long term condition that affects every aspect of everything you do.
The last thing I want, actually, is to have a mental illness, yet it seems that it’s becoming increasingly popular for people to be diagnosed with and suffer from Anxiety, Depression, an eating disorder (notice that the diagnosis rate of schizophrenia hasn’t increased at the same rate in recent years).
I think, partly, this is because of the social media effect. I’ve come to feel that there are two acceptable states on Facebook: happy or mentally ill. There is just no place for people to be plain old sad anymore. We’re either fighting a battle against something or we’re grinning from ear to ear in a popular restaurant having the time of our lives. There’s place for ‘inspiring’ fight and place for ‘perfect’, but nothing in-between.
I also get the feeling that people are – in general – becoming more and more out of touch with their emotions. In my job, I work closely with children. At the moment, one particular group has begun to describe something negative happening as ‘deep depression’. Depression isn’t the name of an emotion; it’s the name of an illness, and they’re not synonymous. And, yet, more and more that’s how we use the words.
This is more dangerous than it seems: depression and sadness are so far from being the same thing. In my experience, depression and desperation are semantically closer, but the media doesn’t seem to share that idea. Saying ‘I’m depressed’ doesn’t mean ‘I’m sad’ anymore than saying ‘I’ve got appendicitis’ when you’ve actually got indigestion.
I say this is as someone who was once falsely diagnosed with depression. To admit it makes me feel ashamed, but it also illustrates my point quite well (or so I like to think). When I was 21, I moved away from home. A lot of things went wrong, not least that I was just in entirely the wrong frame of mind to move away from home (and, when push came to shove, I didn’t actually really want everything that came with moving away). Being away from home made me sad. I didn’t get depression, because I’ve since had real depression and it wasn’t what I was feeling at that time in life.
I went to the doctors and I told her I thought I had depression. It happened mainly because I didn’t know what else to do and I thought my parents would accept a doctor saying I had to move back home, but I knew that I didn’t have depression.
I felt sad.
And, yet, it was all too easy to have a clinical diagnosis put to my emotions. I walked out of the surgery, less than ten minutes later, clutching a prescription for antidepressants and a diagnosis of depression. In all honesty, it was more difficult to get a diagnosis for the eating disorder I definitely did have (and, for comparison, when a consultant psychiatrist did diagnose my depression, I argued against it for a long time – I didn’t feel sad. Now I know that depression and feeling sad have very little in common anyway).
It’s perhaps easier to give something a name and make it an illness than to accept that you’re just feeling a certain way. It takes the blame away from your actions and your choices and gives you something to take tablets for. I get it – it can be hard to accept that sometimes things just aren’t that good, but it’s also damaging for people and for everyone around them, and for the world in general, to give feelings a clinical diagnosis.
What we should be teaching children is that it’s OK to be sad or angry or anxious. That they’re allowed to struggle with things, but that doesn’t mean that they’re ill. And we should be learning that ourselves. Even as someone who’s worn the Anxiety path threadbare, I’ve recently started asking myself whether feelings of anxiety are for a rational reason, or whether it really is Anxiety causing them. This has really helped because it’s made me reconsider how I cope with my emotions: do I ignore them because they’re irrational, or do I listen and act upon them because I’m feeling anxious because something has happened that’s making me feel that way?
Emotional literacy is fast becoming the most rediscovered talent of the twenty-first century: something that was once second nature (my Grandma is excellent at it) is now a skill that seemingly has to be relearnt. But its importance is immeasurable: as a society, it is imperative that we learn to be sad and angry and anxious, rather than taking a pill and hoping that it will all go away.