Alternately titled: Yes, but isn’t EVERYBODY kinda mentally ill? What is mental illness anyways? Aren’t we just pathologizing being weird?! BUT SO MANY PEOPLE SEEM TO BE MENTALLY ILL NOW!
If you talk about mental health and mental illness long enough someone is going to pull one of these.
You know, aren’t we all just different?
It seems like everyone has a mental illness.
I mean, like, isn’t everyone sad/anxious/depressed/a little obsessive-compulsive?
Yes, but mental illness is just a social construct! We just decide what behaviors we don’t like and those are the ones we treat!
I mean, it’s all just a bell curve!
I’ve always imagined myself shouting BECAUSE REASONS!!11!1, and then promptly brandishing a list at the offending questioner. This post is the internet equivalent to that word waving. Beware of snark.
1) The ‘Useful Heuristic’ Explanation
We, as humans, categorize things, then use shortcuts to understand what’s going on in our world. These can break down and aren’t always helpful (see every racist, sexist, heterosexist stereotype ever) but they do save cognitive time and space and increase processing speed. “Having X mental illness” or even “having a mental illness” is a useful heuristic that conveys specific information. I don’t have to tell you that I am statistically more likely to find food anxiety-provoking, while also having significant distorted bodily perception, obsessive behaviors related to food and drink consumption and discussion of the aforementioned–I can just tell you (or anyone else) that I have an eating disorder.
2) The ‘Special Snowflake’ Explanation
The experiences of those with mental illness are quantifiably different from those without mental illness. In fact, when people respond with “Oh, I get/understand/could imagine [whatever aspect of mental illness I was talking about].” I’m actually faintly uncomfortable. Because no you don’t.
By attempting to cheerfully shoehorn the experiences of the mentally ill into your Just Like Me box, you’re actually ignoring their experience–and also refusing to acknowledge that the ways in which they inhabit the world are fundamentally different from yours. You don’t understand it, and you can’t, and that’s fine. The solution is to get used to it, not to pretend you’re the same people with slightly different idiosyncracies. Mental illness not having a membership to a Special Club for the Quirky. It’s overwhelming, distressing, and the vast, vast majority of people with it spend their time wanting it to go away, now.
And for heaven’s sake, mental illness is not a cute little talent like juggling geese, rearing its head when convenient.
3) Dammit, It’s Hard to Do Research Without Diagnoses
Without some way of quantifying the clusters of symptoms that make up different mental illnesses, we’d have extraordinarily poor research. The anxiety surrounding food in anorexia is different from the anxiety of a phobia or the anxiety of PTSD. The You’re Ostracizing People Who Are Just Different crowd usually fail to consider that research lies almost entirely in developing and learning from divisions of differentness.
4) The Medical Model has Some Uses.
Before I have a riot on my hands, this is not me throwing my support to the medical model of mental illness. (Medical model redux: Diagnose via a checking boxes on a list of symptoms, find appropriate fix.) I don’t particularly like it for any sort of understanding about actual illnesses. Go biopsychosocial!
But the model is useful for explaining why being neurodivergent is not the same as being neurotypical. By equating mental illness to physical illness, (Another note: I’m not endorsing mind-body dualism here either–or the excessive use of parenthetical notes.) we’ve benefitted greatly. You can say “someone with cancer has physical differences from someone without cancer!” and then substitute ’depression’ for ‘cancer’, and people wil get it. Not only that, but they’ll understand why treatment is a necessity, why it should be covered under insurance, and why people with depression alter their lives around it. Pretty sure no claims office shelled out for “being a different kind of normal”.
[Dusts off hands.]
Mental illness is A Thing.