black female looking distressed
Mental health / The world

Should we be normalising mental illness?

Awareness around mental illness is certainly getting better, reducing stigma and discrimination is important but are we doing the general population a disservice?

1 in 4 mental health awareness. 4 silhouettes, 3 are blue and 1 is has words such as “there’s too much to do” and “why does it always happen to me?”

The figure is 1 in 4 people will suffer with a mental illness at some point in their lives. There are also statistics out there about how many anti-depressants are prescribed each year or the number of sick days mental illness costs companies. Some say “mental illness is on the rise”, perhaps due to the state of our economy, social media or life stresses from other sources.

But, perhaps we need to stop and think. Not coping is different from mental illness.

Talking recently to someone working in Child and Adolscent Mental Health, she said she is seeing a rise in children being referred to her service but this is not due to a rise in mental illness, she is seeing a rise in children not coping and a decrease in resilience.

This seems to be the same across all sector of the population.

The phrase “panic attack” has become synonymous with feeling anxious. Now, I do not want to diminish anyone’s anxiety but if you’re stood in a queue in the supermarket “having a panic attack” but you “kept it in” – you did not have a panic attack. You may have experienced extreme anxiety, and I’m not saying that is ok, you may need to learn some techniques to manage feeling anxious but please do not use a medical phrase for a normal emotion.

The language around mental illness is diffciult because they’re standard English words. You can feel depressed without being diagnosed with depression, you can feel paranoid without suffering panaroia (a symptom of mental illness), you can feel anxious without having a diagnosis of anxiety. By raising awareness, we’re making all these words more accessible and they’re falling into common use. But bandying medical words around in common parlance diminishes their meaning in the context of illness.

male looking into a spyglass

If you suffer severe fluctuations in emotions that feel uncomfortable, please do talk to someone, you are allowed support, I do not want to take that away from you. After all, apparently Socrates said “The unexamined life is not worth living”. You do not have to be ill to access support, explore yourself and your life and to develop better coping strategies. Nor do you need to justify your struggles by using medical terminology.

I started training to be a counsellor because I want to help people diagnosed with mental illness but the more I learn, the more I see how incredibly helpful it can be for people who’re struggling with life’s ups and downs. It’s ok to seek counselling or other support when things just don’t feel right.

It’s great that people are getting more comfortable in talking about their emotions but we need to be able to differentiate between people who’re struggling and people who’re ill. It’s ok to say “I’m having a bit of a tough time” or “I’m not feeling so great today” – the #hashtag #itsoknottobeok is falling into common use and this is helpful for everyone’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

If you’d sprained your ankle, you wouldn’t say you’d fractured it, put it in a cast and use crutches would you? A sprained ankle needs appropriate support. If I had a sprained ankle but I acted as though it was broken and treated it as such, i.e. immobilised it etc, it would get worse, not better.

By normalising mental illness and by normalising the language, we risk normal struggles being treated as illness. Since recovering from mental illness, I’m not immune from normal life struggles but I’m acutely aware they are just that.

By raising awareness of mental illness, we need to be careful we don’t label all emotional struggles as “illness”. We need to make sure we’re also raising awareness of the differences between illness and not coping.


10/05/2019 at 19:51

Thank you for this, I have often pondered this conundrum Frances. Very sensitively adressed and very true x

Martin E
03/06/2019 at 11:24

A very good article Clare,especially the sprained ankle analogy. My ‘ off the cuff’ response to this question would be, yes there are the ‘blues’ so common that it spawned a whole genre of music, as opposed to medication.Yet there has also been a gradual de-stigmatisation of mental health, due in part I feel by
‘celebrities’ ( dreadful word) being publicly candid about their mental health and the sad fate of some.Robin Williams and Kieth Flint to name two more recent ones.Both incidentally,prolonged users of class A drugs at different stages in their lives.A fact that has not been attributed it seems to their mental Ill health but which I consider something akin to living on nothing but deep fried chocolate bars and cooking sherry for a year or two would do to your physical health.

    03/06/2019 at 19:49

    You’re right, people manage their mental health in all sorts of ways. People also attempt to manage mental illness on their own too, however, the latter, needs professional help of some sort. People in the public eye have been incredibly helpful in getting us talking more. Everyone has a different story but I’m not sure how I feel about viewing other’s lives through the lens of the media, an incredibly warped lens at times! You bring up an interesting point about drug use, well known to cause mental ill health in the susceptible. But it’s a tricky topic that requires sensitive language since blame, responsibility and guilt play interesting roles in how people manage the aftermath! Thank you for reading!

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