Mental health misunderstood

Spencer Batute and @batutie_

It’s no secret that mental health is becoming an increasingly prevalent issue in today’s social landscape. According to the National Alliance on mental illness, one in five adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness in a given year, and one in five youth aged 13-18 experience a severe mental disorder at some point during their life. Some of these rates are increasing. Mental Health America’s annual assessment on the state of mental health in the U.S. reported an increase of youth experiencing a Major depressive episode from 11.93 to 12.63 percent in the past year.

Fortunately, the rise in numbers of people affected by mental disorders has brought increased awareness and de-stigmatization of mental health issues. Sponsorship of events like Mental Health Awareness Month by big-name organizations like Instagram, and greater support offered by many American colleges are among the myriad of ways in which the general public have been perceptibly educated about mental health issues. Discussion of mental health is quickly becoming the norm among young adults, one of the groups most impacted by rising mental illness rates in recent years.

Unfortunately, this increased awareness is frequently misled by the medical model of mental illness.

All too often, people are taught that all mental illnesses are bona fide diseases or conditions of dysfunction, just like a cancerous growth or a broken leg. While the research is still out on some areas like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, the idea that conditions like depression and anxiety—two human and very natural emotions—are purely pathological, is absurd and even downright dangerous. While the move to greater understanding has been mostly positive and well-intended, the medicalized nature of the movement has set the stage for mass misinformation of mental health.

The medical model of mental illness operates on the assumption that mental illness arises from biological or physical causes. Because a mental illness, under this lens, is just another medical condition, it’s symptoms are often handled the way doctors usually treat their patients,

However, medical practitioners primarily psychiatrists focus on individual details and forego the role played by environments and situations. This mistake, dubbed “Viewing Symptoms as Diseases” by American evolutionary physician Randolph M. Nesse, is particularly common in the field of psychiatry because of the intangibility of the problems that cause mental illness.

The impact of such an approach to mental health is nothing short of disastrous. By discounting the educational role of symptoms and neglecting their context, medical practitioners are glossing over a problem’s roots and digging the hole deeper for their clients. Instead of investigating the deeper issues underlying their symptoms, people are trying to treat their symptoms like depression or anxiety as diseases to be cured.

The damage caused by the idea of mental illness being an innate, pathological condition does not stop here. Instead of being given a holistic framework for self-improvement, people are told that their brains are defective as a result of neurotransmitter imbalances and that they must take certain medications in order to be fixed. The message here is clearly one of powerlessness on the side of the mentally ill.

And what constitutes “mentally ill,” anyway? Is it a DSM diagnosis? Is it an abnormal length of time spent in a depressive mood? What about the context behind the symptoms? The subjectivity of mental illness is a topic not explored nearly enough in the broader discussion and is yet another example of why the medical model does such a disservice to those with mental health concerns.

For as long as the medical model of mental illness continues to be the championed explanation of mental health issues, there will be consistent misunderstanding over the field as a whole.