John Humphrys – Mental health: a devious idea?
Changes in the way we use language are often a sure sign of changes in the way we think about the world. Consider the efforts of militant groups to try to control the words we use to talk about homosexuality, for example, or racial groups, or what pronouns we should use when it comes to different genders. The goal is to change the way we think by changing the way we speak. The term “mental health” is the latest example. Go back only a few decades and you would be hard pressed to find anyone who uses it outside of the circle of professionals dealing with mental illness. Now it’s ubiquitous. Even school children talk about their mental health when asked how they are doing. But are we now using the term too loosely? And are there any dangers in this?
For many people, the change did not come soon enough. Our previous failure to utter the phrase, they argue, was simply a reflection of our turning a blind eye to an obvious source of human suffering and unhappiness. It wasn’t that long ago that we just divided people into two categories. There were the madmen, the madmen, the madmen (better locked in an institution) on one side, and the rest of us on the other. It is true that in the last century or so we started to apply a little more discrimination in the treatment of people who were obviously mentally ill. Now we are making distinctions between different categories of mental illnesses that have little in common, such as depression, schizophrenia, autism, and what we now call bipolar disorder. We used to call it manic depression. Nevertheless, according to the argument, we have been slow to get rid of the idea that on the one hand there are the mentally ill – no matter how many categories we have divided them into – and on the other hand there are there were the rest of us.
For a long time, the idea that we could all be subject to varying degrees of mental illness, just as we are all vulnerable to varying degrees of physical illness, barely existed. Indeed, the mental and the physical were considered as two completely distinct, if not completely independent, aspects of our being. It is the breaking of that dichotomy, the realization that our bodies and minds interact with each other, that has led us to talk about mental health just as we talk about physical health. We now know that there is a psychosomatic illness – an illness that manifests itself in a physical form but the cause of which may very well be mental. We also realize that just as the body can only take a limited amount of physical stress before something gives in – the heart, our lungs, our limbs – our mind can only take a limited amount of mental stress. Put too much mental stress on ourselves and we suffer from what even previous generations recognized as “mental depression”.
You might argue that moving to the term “mental health” is a welcome step. There are now ways to “treat” those who do not fit into the major recognized categories of mental illness, but who feel that what is going on in their mind is preventing them from functioning as well as they think they are. There are talk therapy, developed since Freud and Jung began to study this whole area of human experience. And there are simpler “hands-on” approaches, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT. Ten sessions with a specialist practitioner can help them think differently about life, their relationships with others, etc. It might help them change their routines: exercise; better nutrition; go to bed earlier. And of course there may be some pills that could help as well.
From this perspective, our new disposition to talk about mental health is totally liberating and opens up the possibility of reducing human suffering and unhappiness. Why, then, would anyone want to ask if this is a good thing?
The first reason can be summarized succinctly: it is that it risks medicalizing the human experience. Living is, after all, an essentially subjective matter. It is something that we live and this experience is unique to each of us. The experience is a bit like being on a roller coaster that everyone individually has to adapt to as best they can. We experience joy and sorrow, heavy moods and light moods, we feel high and low and we negotiate our way through it all.
The risk of interpreting all this subjective experience in terms of “sanity” is that we begin to objectify what is primarily, and essentially, subjective: it makes us wonder if the fact that we feel sad, in a bad mood , it’s because we have a “mental health problem”. Life passes from the rich and not always easy subjective experience of what we “are” to the objective and independent questioning of what we can have “”. This risks turning us into passive spectators of our own lives: we have something, so we must turn to others for professional help.
There is another risk with this. It can become too easy to identify “good” mood with being in good health and “bad” mood with mental health “problems”. Yet a life in which only “good” moods are lived is certainly a much less rich life than a life in which all subjective experience is accepted as what it means to live life to the fullest.
This approach to our subjective experience can be particularly pernicious when applied to children. The whole business of growing up involves the intense subjective experience of realizing that life is a roller coaster of emotions and learning to hang on. It is through this experience and learning to hold on that children build character and learn what personal responsibility is. Encouraging children to see all of this through the lens of mental health issues is giving them a free pass. The fact that they feel this stuff has nothing to do with them and it’s not up to them to learn to navigate it because they have a mental health “problem”. It’s up to adults to sort that out. For children, talking about mental health is inextricably linked to the simple question “am I having something wrong with my mind?” Indeed, more widely in use, the expression “mental health” seems to quickly transform into a synonym for “mental illness”.
To speak of the risk of medicalizing the ordinary human experience through the use of the expression “mental health” is not to deny that there are both adults and children who are indeed mentally ill and who could benefit. professional help. The point is, using the phrase as loosely and pervasively as we seem to do risks encouraging people who don’t have mental health “problems” to think they do.
But there is another worry. It is that we can make false assumptions about what threatens mental health and also about how to treat it. Our flippant talk about “stress” is a case in point. “Stress” has become an abominable word in our public conversation. It is assumed that more stress is bad for people and less stress is good. But it is surely not that simple. The Greeks were right: “nothing in excess” is the way to live a healthy life. But the subtlety of the point is that in this sentence the word “nothing” works both ways: we should aim to avoid excesses not only by “too much” but also by “too little”. Too little stress can lead to mentally unhealthy lives (see those who inherit too much money and don’t know what to do with their life) just as too much stress can. In this, it equates exactly to physical stress – too little leaves the body weaker than it would be if it were under more physical stress.
And are we sure we know what contributes to “mental health”? The Atom Bank, one of Britain’s largest digital banks, has announced it will cut its workweek from five to four days without losing pay. It was doing so, he said, “to help improve the mental and physical well-being of employees.” Well, so much the better for them to avoid the expression “sanity”. But why assume that working less is good for mental well-being? Some people get their mental well-being from work. I am one of them). And, more broadly, there is the most enormous
the hypothesis formulated in this now standard expression “work-life balance”. It is that work and life are in some way opposed to each other and need to be balanced, rather than work is part of life and “balance” is not. the whole problem. That’s not to say that many people would benefit from working less, spending more time with their kids, and taking long walks in the fall sun. But generally, the unexamined hypothesis is that less work equals better mental health. Truly? Always?
Finally, there is a much more sinister factor to consider in considering whether we should be so free in our discourse on “sanity”. It is because there are powerful interests at stake. I am referring, of course, to the powerful pharmaceutical companies in all of this. Creating a market for drugs to treat “mental health problems” is addictive, addictive, and potentially huge profits. Many people familiar with the opioid epidemic in the United States assume that it was caused by addiction that can arise from the recreational use of illegal drugs. Much of it may well have been. But much of it was caused by a lifelong addiction to perfectly legal drugs prescribed to treat mental health issues. The increasing prescribing of these drugs to children should alarm us all.
There has been a staggering increase in the number of people being prescribed antidepressants in England today. Over seven million. More terrifyingly, about a quarter of a million of them are children between the ages of five and sixteen.
Is it really possible that life is so much harder for a child today than it was a generation ago? So difficult that the only answer is to embark on the nightmarish journey that can lead to drug addiction?
So what should we do with our increasingly loose use of the term “sanity”? Is this a late release for people who have so far suffered without being heard or helped? Or does it risk turning our ordinary life experiences into a form of illness, leaving us to passively look at our own lives from the side while others “treat” us? Or is it a bit of both – in which case how should we strive for the benefits without the costs?
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YouGov plc published this content on November 29, 2021 and is solely responsible for the information it contains. Distributed by Public, unedited and unmodified, on November 29, 2021 09:19:04 AM UTC.