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Does Everyone Have a Mental Illness?

The answer to this question of course is ‘No.’ Nevertheless the percentage of people diagnosed and dealing with a mental illness increases with each passing year. This is especially true in 2020/2021, as the pandemic has taken a toll on our daily lives. **This post was updated in 2021**

Certainly over the years, due to advances in society and technology, we have become more aware of the biological and psychological markers of mental illness, and more willing to recognize them. Another reason put forth to explain the rise of mental illness is the idea that we currently “live in more difficult times” than previously.

I don’t agree with this. The reality is we now live in arguably the easiest times in the course of human history, but we seem to have lost some of our “toughness” or what we as therapists call “resilience.” Therein lies the conundrum: “Hard Times” force us to build resilience, paving the way for “Easier Times,” which then result in higher rates emotional complacency.

Pandemic and the last two years aside, we are living in arguably the “Easiest” period of time in history.

Sure, we have our fair share of problems (an increasingly faster pace of life, high rates of career burnout alongside underemployment, and major environmental concerns). But I wouldn’t trade these problems – problems that remain very much within our control if only we would take charge of them – for the ones our ancestors had (food scarcity, natural predators, global wars, lack of social justice, and voracious inequality) any time soon. And we are no more pre-disposed to mental health issues now than we were then. So what is really going on here? Are we all getting sicker? Or do we simply need to understand the difference between Mental Illness and what is otherwise our situational and subjective response to how we experience life and it’s many stressors?

I think it’s the latter.

One of the reasons posited for the increase in mental illness is the ability to classify and diagnose them, through the relatively recent system of classification and diagnosis known as the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), in it’s 5th edition at the time of this article. There is no mistaking that the DSM has advanced the field of mental health, namely with the identification and naming of specific issues which has thereby facilitated greater access to appropriate forms of treatment, accommodation, and clinical understanding. However it has also made it seem easy for many of us all to meet the conditions for at least one Mental Illness defined within it at some point in a typical life span.

Here’s the thing: Sometimes extremely negative emotional responses are supposed to occur in life. Let’s face it: At times, our circumstances genuinely suck. Pandemic anyone? Divorces, separations, and breakups, job losses and toxic workplaces, relatives you’d rather not see, etc. These “difficult life circumstances” have specific context, and therefore our negative responses to them should be considered “normal” – albeit ones we would like to get control over eventually and move forward from. Healthy Negative Emotions – i.e. emotions that fit the situation they are expressed in, and expressed in a way that is in proportion to the situation – are a necessary part of our Mental Recovery process.

A good example of this is what happens after the loss of a loved one. Loving someone means attachment. And losing an attachment results in pain. The ability to feel pain is the price of love. So a person grieving the loss of a loved one is in pain, and usually demonstrates behaviour that is similar to that seen in clinical depression (feelings of intense sadness, loss of energy and appetite, fatigue, withdrawal, etc.). If the person behaves this way for a period of 2 weeks or more, today they would qualify for a diagnosis of depression. But is it actually depression? Wouldn’t most of us feel and behave the same way after losing a loved one, for at least 2 weeks and probably longer? And if we do does that make us depressed…or simply human?

Bereaved clients who we work with at NKS Therapy often come to us saying that they need to “snap out of it, be happy, and move on.” And our therapists response to them is to do the opposite. To allow the sadness to be present. For hundreds of years, cultures around the world have designated rituals and periods of time dedicated to mourning following the loss of loved ones. They understood that a depressed mood is normal when grieving, and allowing oneself the time to acknowledge, embrace, and endure (not fight) those negative feelings is the body’s natural way of emotional healing. We seem to have lost sight of that, at least in some of our responses to life events.

Another, albeit relatively new, example is that of designating children who have tantrums with what is now known as “Intermittent Explosive Disorder” in the DSM. A certain amount of sporadic tantrum-ing is developmentally appropriate for children under the age of 5, and it can be very difficult to accurately pinpoint when it crosses over into clinical pathology (or disorder, disease, illness) particularly during childhood which is a time of rapid biological growth and development.

The actual definition of a Mental Illness is a pervasive pattern of thought, emotion, and behaviour that drastically impairs a person’s functioning on a regular or recurring basis. That is to say it persistently interferes with their ability to do things such as sleep or eat adequately, keep up basic hygiene and grooming, take care of life administration (i.e. pay bills, stay organized, manage one’s household), attend and perform at school or work, and form meaningful and lasting relationships with others. They often (though not always) have some form of biological basis to them. Most everything else can be chalked up to an over-reaction, an under-reaction, or a normal and healthy reaction.

We have unfortunately become a culture that seeks to over-pathologize the human condition. As Psychotherapists at NKS Therapy, our personal approach is to normalize the experiences of our clients as much as possible, without denigrating the seriousness of their problems, and real conditions surrounding their mental health. Mental Illness is obviously a significant matter. So are Mental ‘Issues.’ But the reality is our susceptibility to Mental Illness remains about the same as it has been, and most of us will not experience it.

But all of us will experience the ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ life offers: The joyous moments, the grippingly sad ones, and everything in between, the positive emotions, and the negative ones. We need to embrace them all, at the right time and in the right amount.

NKS Therapy offers services such as Virtual Therapy, Career Counselling Toronto, Couples Counselling Toronto, Relationship Counselling Toronto, Family Counselling Toronto, Psychoeducational Assessment Toronto, Toronto Mental Health Services, Psychotherapy for Depression Toronto, Toronto Psychologist Services, and Child Psychologist Toronto Services. Call us today at 416-745-4745. We love to help.

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