Archive for March, 2015

The problem with mental illness

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

I’m writing this from the perspective of a non-sufferer. Nor have I had to look after anyone suffering from mental illness.

So why am I writing about mental illness? Because my perception of it probably reflects how many other people think about it.

Physical illnesses present symptoms: if I have a cold, then others can easily see my symptoms and assess my condition and have a realistic prognosis about how my cold will develop. The symptoms are measurable.

If someone is paraplegic and has to use a wheelchair then we can usually make an assessment on how their disability affects them – so we can anticipate problems with obstacles such as stairs.

If someone is deaf, then their disability is not immediately apparent to us and we might interact with them without modifying our behaviour. It is only when they signal to us in some way that they have a hearing impairment that we become aware of their disability. If this person has a hearing aid and can manage normal conversation with it, then the sight of the hearing aid can still alert us to their impairment and we might subconsciously adjust for it by speaking more slowly etc.

My point is that physical illness/disability usually presents recognisable symptoms that other people can gauge, to some degree of accuracy, their limiting affects by using their imaginations. No prior knowledge of the condition is needed.

Mental illness is different. The sufferers can look perfectly normal and they can go about their lives displaying no symptoms whatsoever to the outside world. This is what makes it so unsettling to the general public.

Without any kind of measuring system to assess what the problem is or know what kind of behaviour it will produce, the average person will imagine all sorts of possibilities. This uncertainty unsettles some people and once they discover that someone is mentally ill, they would rather avoid any kind of embarrassment that might arise from misunderstood interactions with them rather than engage with the person and attempt to understand their illness.

This is why mental illness has a stigma: it is the unknown and unseen that is troubling. And when a pilot with mental illness turns into a mass murderer, then the fears of the general public seem to be confirmed – if experts can’t spot the symptoms, what chance have we, the general public?

I apologise in advance if I have offended anyone dealing with mental illness. I am not judging here, I’m trying to help the situation by analysing the reasoning behind the stigma.