Mental Illness or Below Average Functioning?
It’s easy for me to empathize because I regularly have bouts of depression. A deep anguish comes over me, and during this period I often begin to think about how I went through my father’s death when I was twelve, how I’m getting older and can no longer do the many athletic things that thrilled me when I was younger, the papers that I painstakingly wrote that were rejected by one publisher after another, and on and on. Sometimes these dark melancholy experiences come about because something clearly happened that upset me, and sometimes they seem to come out of the blue.
Beyond Listening in a Caring Manner
After listening in a caring way to Barbara for a few minutes, I ask her if something specifically happened that led her into her current emotional experience. Then I explore with her a question about how often she has these experiences and if she feels she has them more frequently than most people, about as often as most, or less than most. Then, I ask her about how she has been functioning in other areas of her life–sleep, eating, exercise, interpersonal relationships, work/school, household responsibilities.
You see, as people experience depression, or other concerns that often lead to a classification of having a mental disorder, some people go about their lives functioning as they typically were doing before the concern arose, while some find that in some areas they begin to function below the levels that are typical for them, while some find that their functioning increases in one or more areas. For example, some sleep about the same amount, some less, and some more. I have met people who, when they are depressed, start cleaning every inch of their home, while others find it difficult to get out of bed.
Also of interest when exploring a person’s expressed concern is to look at how the person had been functioning before the onset of the presenting concern. If some important relationships had begun to function below average, or if the person had been sleeping less than average to keep up with work demands, these facts can be insightful when seeking ways to address the presenting concern.
Now, once I found out what Barbara was concerned about, and how she had been functioning in the other areas of her life, I had a pretty good idea as to how to proceed in addressing her concern. I had no need to decide whether or not she had a mental disorder. However, many mental health practitioners are required to declare that the person seeking mental health services has a mental disorder. Is this mental illness labeling really necessary?
Mental Illness Labeling Versus an Addressing Concern Approach
There are those who embrace this mental illness/disorder labeling. A major reason for this is that these individuals have a group of people in their lives that blame them for the way that they have been feeling or acting. When a doctor has declared, for example, that John Smith has a mental disorder, he may feel vindicated. “You see, there really is something wrong with me!” he may cry out in his defense.
In actuality, those who are doing the blaming may continue their blaming despite the doctor’s opinion. Moreover, many of us don’t blame people whenever they find some concern has arisen in their lives even if they are going through a non-illness experience. I know I’m not blaming myself when I feel depressed, and I was not at all blaming Barbara for what she was going through.
Those who are uncomfortable about the use of “mental illness” terminology point out they are stigmatizing because they are used as put downs in our society. Moreover, the media associates the most heinous crimes with those referred to as the mentally ill even though the vast majority of those classified in this manner are not violent.
Among the most articulate individuals to voice objections to the mental disorder labeling was Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James. Over one hundred years ago he wrote a book titled, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). At that time many medical doctors argued that people who were religious were all mentally ill. In response,