Is Mental Illness a Farce?

One of the most difficult things I have encountered since being diagnosed is the opinion of a number of people in my inner circles who honestly believe that mental illness is a farce.  They believe that mental illnesses are fabricated conditions that were made up in order that doctors in that field can earn money off the emotional turmoil of everyday people.  Others believe that people want to be diagnosed with a mental condition so that they can use their diagnosis to avoid having to work, to get sympathy and any number of other so called benefits of having a mental illness.  They do not believe that people with a mental illness are genuinely suffering.

Some of the non believers actually do believe that the emotions experienced by people who claim to have a mental illness are real.  They just do not believe that they continue across time in a pattern that can be neatly described or categorised into mental illnesses.  Some believe that those who claim to have a mental illness are just weaker than those who don’t, they cannot manage the same emotions the way strong people do.

Others say that the emotions can be classified into categories or labelled as a mental illness but they don’t believe that these conditions can be treated with medication, they believe that lifestyle changes alone are sufficient to cure these conditions and medications simply make people dependant on drugs and prolongs their condition for whatever period of time they continue to be medicated for, without changing their lifestyle.  They believe the medications cause an imbalance in the brain chemistry rather than balancing the brain chemistry as the medical professionals would have you believe.

Furthermore, other non believers, believe that mental illnesses are simply labels for everyday emotions and that seeing psychologists to discuss your emotions is simply a very expensive way of talking about it out-loud, which may benefit you but could be done with a friend or relative and that a psychologist is simply charging you exorbitant fees for no real benefit.  They don’t believe that a psychology degree is a ‘real’ qualification or that it equips a person as a medical professional.

On an even more contentious topic, Electroconvulsive Therapy that I have undertaken on a number of occasions is regarded by many as barbaric and should be banned.  Despite vast medical evidence showing that the value of the treatment (as it is done these days) outweighs the side effects, many people believe this medical evidence has been doctored to support the treatment to the financial benefit of the medical practitioners and hospitals.  Furthermore, because it is a treatment not a cure many people discount it on the basis that “it obviously didn’t work because you have had to go back and have it again”, they do not understand that its’ effects last months or even years but may eventually wear off.  There are some people however who only ever need one course of treatment (unfortunately I am not one of those lucky ones).

So overall, who is benefiting from the farcical mental illness industry in the opinion of the non-believers?  Pharmaceutical companies of course, Psychologists, Psychiatrists, Mental Hospitals and their staff, Chemists, people who want to benefit in some way from being diagnosed with a mental illness, other people who can benefit from labelling other people in their lives as mentally ill (e.g. people trying to control other people) and so the list goes on.  To some degree all of these people/companies do benefit from the ill health of the mentally ill, but there are plenty of us (mentally ill people) so my argument is that they don’t need to fabricate diagnoses, non-believers though don’t agree with this argument because they believe ALL our diagnoses are a farce.

What is my opinion?  I think like many strong arguments there are elements of truth in the above statements, there will for example be practitioners out there who diagnose people too quickly in order to earn money off the ongoing care of that patient – just as an example.  Just like in any field of work or any part of life there are a minority who do the wrong thing.  But I strongly believe that on the whole the VAST MAJORITY of people working in the psychology and psychiatry fields are doing so because they want to help people and not in order to make money as a first priority.  There are PLENTY of people with mental illnesses and mental health practitioners do not need to fabricate conditions in order to make money.  Similarly the VAST MAJORITY of people diagnosed with a mental illness actually have one (mental illnesses do exist in my opinion) and most people diagnosed with one or more, attack their illness from a number of angles, lifestyle changes, medications, inpatient and outpatient treatments and so on.  There is always an argument for positive lifestyle changes having a positive impact on your mental health, I don’t believe anyone would disagree with that.  However, lifestyle changes alone rarely cure a mental illness (and this raises another question of whether it is even possible to cure a mental illness but we will discuss that in a later blog), and the impact they have is rarely enough to make the persons life manageable.  In the vast majority of cases a multi-pronged approach is required, tackling lifestyle, medications, and in/out patient treatments.

So why am I writing this blog post?  I write it in the hopes that those people who do not believe in mental illness will read this article and then decide to agree to disagree with me and let the topic rest.  There is no need to argue your viewpoint with me each time we talk, we simply will never find a middle ground and consequently we need to agree to disagree and move on from there.  I also write it in the hope that some non-believers may change their minds or soften their opinions and perhaps except that mental illness is not different to any other type of illness and deserves the same respect.  And finally I am writing it so that the non-believers can see that I have been listening to their arguments, I have been hearing them, I just simply don’t agree.

5 thoughts on “Is Mental Illness a Farce?

  1. Beth Timms March 6, 2015 / 7:33 pm

    Really well said! I’ve dealt with all of this & have even questioned myself with some of this logic. I haven’t experienced ECT but possibly I should. I’m still learning to accept my diagnosis….I wish it happened a long time ago. Thanks for your blogs.

  2. John March 6, 2015 / 9:19 pm

    Hi Emily,

    So well said. I feel it so keenly. My friend’s parents were the type of people who did not believe in mental illness. When she was diagnosed with BP type 1 and was hearing voices her parents came to the hospital and yelled at her for being an attention seeker. She felt so betrayed by them. I think it even led her to denying she was ill for over a year. Thing like that should just not happen!

    Currently I am collaborating with Professor Max Bennett (a neuroscientist, now 75) at the University of Sydney (the PhD student of the guy who discovered Lithium as a treatment for BP). He says for every mental illness he has studied (almost all of them) there is evidence of a corresponding “trauma” in the brain.

    I believe that, as a society, we are close to a tipping point where mental illness is becoming more an more accepted. Speaking up as you do, and talking about your experiences helps to normalize them and is the best way to fight stigma. Keep fighting the good fight.

    Take care,

    • emilyjtelfer March 6, 2015 / 11:48 pm

      Hi John, It is fantastic to hear from a professional in the field and very humbling to be complimented by you. I will most certainly keep up the good fight! Thank you so much for your kind words and for taking the time to write to me, I am extremely grateful. Also your comment lends weight to my article which is most appreciated. Kind regards, Emily Jane.

      • John March 7, 2015 / 9:28 pm

        Hi Emily,

        The pleasure is mine. There is heaps of scientific evidence that mental illnesses are real.

        For example, people with BP have significantly larger amygdalas. The amygdala is sometimes affectionately called the “lizard” part of the brain and is responsible for the flight, fight, freeze response that we experience when we feel we are in danger. It also explains why people diagnosed with BP often have emotional problems such as anxiety, paranoia, and rage. The thalamus (responsible for regulation of consciousness, sleep and alertness) also comes up in many studies explaining sleeping problems often suffered by people with BP.

        There are also other perspectives which do not support labeling mental illnesses as “illnesses”. Some research suggests that treating mental illness as a disease like any other actually increases rejection, prejudice and stigma. The problem is that this perspective lends itself to people leaving people with mental illnesses to the care of medical professionals, instead of treating people with mental illnesses with compassion, empathy and grace which is possibly equally important as other treatments in a persons recovery. An alternative to “mental illness” which I have heard used is “mental distress” which attempts to demedicalize the label which may help in this regard.

        Personally, I think that such issues are intimately tied to a person’s sense of identity so I am okay with however a person who is mentally distressed relates to their situation.

        I hope I am making sense. I have references if you are interested.

        What is your view on this perspective?

        Take care,

      • emilyjtelfer March 8, 2015 / 11:32 am

        Hi John,
        I have mixed feelings on this topic for exactly the reasons you’ve outlined. When people know I’m unwell and ask me what is wrong I often say I have a chemical imbalance in my brain (this is usually my response when I’m manic and feeling a bit cheeky). When told this they are taken aback and feel deeply for me which is a very different reaction than I get if I simply say I have bipolar disorder (I have actually had people take a step backwards away from me when I have told them I have bipolar – this has happened on more than one occasion). At the end of the day it comes down to how I am feeling, how much inner strength I have, as to how I will label my condition. One thing is for sure though, I am not embarrassed by it and I refuse to hide it or pretend it doesn’t exist, this is just a part of who I am and I am a little different from everyone else (even other people with bipolar are different to me). I hope this answers your question. Kind regards, Emily Jane

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