By Liwa Nim (John Pendall)
While it’s true that the mentally ill are no longer locked away in dungeons, our culture is still far from accepting how normal abnormality really is.
50 percent of the United States population will develop a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lives. That is a staggering number! This means that most of us either know or will know someone who suffers from a mental illness.
Even though so many people are touched by mental illness, it’s still a taboo subject.
I suffered from major depression, social phobia and panic disorder when I was younger. Thoughts of suicide compelled me to sign into a mental health clinic for a few days. Mental illness is so ostracized by our culture that I felt more comfortable around the mentally ill than I did around the public at large. It was refreshing to be with people who could be honest about their suffering. People who could be respectful and empathetic because they understood each other. That event is what set me on my path to becoming a psychologist.
I originally wanted to work as a psychologist at mental health clinics. I wanted to return to those white-walled buildings to help the people I’d met in there. Now my focus is more on prevention than intervention.
Mental illness doesn’t just appear, it develops from ordinary life stressors. Since it’s still a taboo subject, many people don’t seek help during stressful times. By not seeking help, the stresses compound and become overwhelming. We develop maladaptive coping mechanisms which eventually foster mental illnesses and disorders.
An aspect of prevention is education.
The first step is to de-mystify psychopathology (Science speak for psychiatric illnesses and disorders). For the rest of this article, I’ll offer some facts about psychology, mental illness, and the mentally ill (by the way, I dislike that term).
- Many people who believe they have a mental illness do not in fact have a mental illness. Diagnosable mental illnesses and disorders abide by very specific criteria, but really it all comes down to the “Four D’s.” The Four D’s are dysfunction, deviance, distress and danger. Most people are dysfunctional and deviant to some degree, no one lives their lives adhering completely to social norms. I’ve met many people who think that they’re mentally ill, but really they’re just eccentric. Dysfunctional and deviant thoughts and behaviors must also be distressing and potentially dangerous to be considered symptoms of a mental illness or disorder.
- The terms mental illness and mental disorder are often used interchangeably; however, “mental illness” usually refers to psychopathologies that have a strong connection to physiology and neurology.
- Psychopathologies usually follow a diathesis-stress model. That means that mental illnesses and disorders are usually the result of a genetic sensitivity plus overwhelming life stressors. Someone may be born with a genetic susceptibility to schizophrenia, yet they may not develop any symptoms if they grew up with a strong social support network of friends and family.
- Culture has an impact on psychopathology. There are some mental illnesses and disorders that occur in Western Industrialized nations that never occur in other countries. Likewise, there are some mental illnesses in other countries that we don’t even have names for here. Culture has such an impact on mental health that many theorists are now practicing a biopsychosocial approach to psychology.
- Anorexia nervosa is one of the least common mental illnesses, yet it has the highest mortality rate and is one of the most difficult illnesses to treat.
- The symptoms that most people attribute to schizophrenia, such as strange motions and stuttering speech, are side effects of antipsychotics, not symptoms of schizophrenia.
- Psychopathy is a sub-category of antisocial personality disorder. Not all sociopaths are psychopaths, but all psychopaths are sociopaths. Most psychopaths are not serial killers. Many work as surgeons, police officers, lawyers, accountants, corporate executives, religious leaders and politicians.
- Substance abuse disorder and addictive disorder are legitimate mental illnesses.
- Psychopathologies are more common among people from a low socioeconomic status (SES). This is most likely due to the increased stressors lower class and lower-middle class citizens face.
- Elderly men have the highest suicide rate.
- Many patients and clients benefit from even one psychotherapy session.
- Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in diagnosing mental illnesses and prescribing medication. Psychologists are PhDs or PsyDs who specialize in the research and treatment of mental illnesses. Psychologists cannot prescribe medication in most states. Social workers have a Master’s degree and focus on treating conditions from a sociocultural perspective. Licensed counselors have a Master’s degree and can treat clients from a variety of paradigms.
- Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is less common among people who live at higher altitudes.
To eliminate the stigma around psychopathology, we have to talk about it. We have to educate ourselves and spread awareness in our communities. Cuba actually has one of the best mental health systems in the world. Psychology has been completely implemented into their medical system and each community has a resident psychologist living there. They also have a strong focus on prevention. Every citizen is entitled to free mental health care, and every patient at a hospital is visited by a resident psychologist.
Mental illness doesn’t just affect our brains. Stress and depression influence our overall health, and our health likewise influences our susceptibility to stress and depression.
So I believe that an emphasis on preventive care coupled with a holistic approach to mental health will be the next breakthrough in psychology. We especially need to encourage high risk groups to seek counseling when they are stressed. This includes minorities, middle and lower class citizens, and people who have mental illness in their family.
I believe Humanistic psychotherapy could be beneficial for everyone, not just the mentally ill. If we rid ourselves of our disdain for the mentally ill and focus on prevention, then perhaps thousands of people who would’ve developed a mental illness may be spared from such suffering. The overall point is, if you are experiencing a lot of life stressors, see a counselor or social worker.
Even one session can make a huge difference.
Liwa Nim (John Pendall) lives in rural Illinois between two cornfields. He is a psychology undergraduate and a Wayfarer in the Order of the Boundless Way (part of the Boundless Mind Zen school). He writes poems, short stories and makes progressive rock music. He loves philosophy, astronomy and a 50/50 mixture of unsweetened green/black tea. He hopes to make a living in the mental health field with a focus on preventing mental illnesses from developing.
Photo: Gary Waters/Corbris
Editor: Dana Gornall
Feel free to check out his Facebook page, his blog "Salty Dharma", and/or his non-Buddhist poetry at "The Writer's Block."
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