The problem with mental illness

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.

3 Responses to “The problem with mental illness”

  1. Orest says:

    Dear satnav for the soul, mental illness is recognisable, as there are definite signs (that can be read about) indicating that their colleague, friend or loved one has a mental illness, these can be readily seen in major (I mean major) changes in a persons normal behaviour (if they can be bothered to do so). It’s just that people really don’t care about the other person, as people these days are generally only interested in themselves. People need to be educated about the signs of someone suffering with a mental illness urgently, as more and more people are becoming ill with disastrous results.

  2. Ivor Tymchak says:

    Hi Orest

    thanks for commenting. I was making a generalised observation in this post about how those people with little experience of mental illness tend to view the condition. I’m aware that people with extensive experience in the area of mental health have a much more nuanced perception of it and therefore can recognise distinct behaviour. Having said that, I regularly read in the media (OK, not the most reliable source) about the ‘unpredicted’ behaviour of people suffering from a mental illness. I bring you back to the pilot who appears to have deliberately brought a plane down: no-one seems to have had any inclination as to the enormity of his actions. Even his girlfriend (again, I’ve gleaned this from the media) seems to have been only vaguely troubled by some of the things he said whilst she was intimate with him.
    I know this is one case only and there will be a lot of cognitive bias due to the media coverage but presumably, this will be the thin edge of a large wedge.

  3. Orest says:

    Hi Ivor
    The media is reinforcing the wrong perception of mental illness, for the general public’s reaction to someone with an illness especially depression is “Just pull yourself together” (How many times have I heard this? the person saying this comment don’t realise that it makes the ill person very angry and dangerous…) that ill person just wishes that they could pull themselves together. Depression dominates their entire life, their thoughts and actions. All they want is a sympathetic ear! I recommend people to watch Louis Theroux’s programme on Insanity on BBC I-player, it gives a very good insight of how people with a mental illness have very little control over their actions unless they are medicated.

Leave a Reply