Mental illness is something we all deal with. Without relying on any statistics, I can confidently say that all of us are either personally affected by mental health or care about someone who is. Bell Let’s Talk is an initiative meant to get some of these issues in to the public discourse. I hesitate to say that because when corporations have these marketable/charitable initiatives, they tend to become a little too sanitized. Nonetheless, I do appreciate where the money is going and it is giving us more of a platform to discuss mental illness.

Mental health has long been a sanitized issue. When we discuss mental health, we discuss it in a way that does not deviate from the dominant ideological practices of our time. That is to say, the conclusions we come to do not interfere with, and in fact affirm, the power dynamics that already exist. I want to discuss mental illness in a way that gives dignity and power back to those who suffer from it and expose the social norms and practices that work to make mental illness worse.

Often times when someone is actually diagnosed with a mental illness there is at least some regard paid to the DSM-V; a diagnostic manual filled with “disorders” and “symptoms” that are often quite common place. It’s not necessary to harp on this too much; most psychologist and psychiatrists use the DSM responsibly. But it is worth noting that more than 70% of its authors were paid by pharmaceutical companies. I’ve had the pleasure of reading some of these and to me it felt like reading about astrology, you can’t read one without thinking, “yeah maybe I am like that, I think it’s true!” But what is mental illness really? Is it a neurochemical issue? Is it inherited or is it something you develop in early childhood or later in life? I think it’s absolutely fair to say all of the above. We have support for all of it and no proof that one dominates any of the others. Despite the push to fix your neurochemical imbalance with medication, it may actually have nothing to do with that. But mental illness is real and I think it’s important we define it simply and clearly; you’re mentally ill when the symptoms you are displaying cause you to function at lower rate, or not at all, within a social structure.

The last part is what is important here; within a social structure. After all, functioning in rural parts of China can be considerably different than functioning in the urban western world. Similarly, functioning as a woman in the early 20th century is significantly different than functioning as a woman today. The context of our functioning matters a great deal. This is important because it makes mental illness a two-way street; yes, the individual afflicted with such an illness must do what he or she can to better function in society, but the reverse is also true; societies must work to allow all, or the greatest number, of its members to function at the highest rate. The disease is not solely the responsibility of he who embodies it but also the responsibility of the community he belongs to, and the same should be said of the cure.

Today, we unfortunately see the opposite. While we almost celebrate the idea that its okay to be mentally ill, the solution is always to “get help” and start medicating, but almost no attention is paid to if the symptoms are actually problematic intrinsically. In a world where psychopaths have an easier time climbing the corporate ladder, we might consider if we are making things harder on the most sensitive among us for no good reason at all.

Consider the sad history of homosexuality in the DSM. Homosexuality was pathologized until the release of the DSM-IV. Here I will turn things on its head a little. Of course, homosexuality is not a sickness, it is a normal characteristic of human sexuality, but can we deny that at an earlier stage of our history that homosexuals were less able to function normally in society? Even today it is not uncommon to hear about people losing their families because of their sexual persuasion and it was once commonplace to lose your job or be passed over for promotion because of your sexual identity. By my definition it could be labeled as an illness. The caveat here is there was nothing intrinsically wrong about this characteristic but it was the social order of the day that excluded and demonized those who loved in a way that was not acceptable. Today, I suspect most of you will agree with me, but history is not over, what else are we pathologizing today that is not problematic in and of itself but only because we live in a cruel age?

Is it wrong to have intense emotions or to need to be loved; should we be more in line with the social order and learn to love ourselves; to not need others and be self-sufficient individuals as we engage in consumerism and self-actualization? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I think we are social beings first, who must live in community with others and when that is not part of the social order, we may be pathologizing normal human characteristics that need not be changed.