“How Do You Define Mentally Ill?”

“What do you mean he’s mentally ill?” the woman said. “He just needs to get his act together!” I was sitting in an Olive Garden the other day, and overheard part of a conversation from a very loud patron. I tried to ignore her, but she said something that caught my attention: “Well, how do you define mentally ill?”

Hearing that made me think about what a good question it was. How do you define mental illness? Mental disorders are more prevalent than heart disease, cancer, or diabetes. Twenty-five percent of American adults and thirteen percent of American children are diagnosed each year with a mental illness, per the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The causes of mental illnesses are still unknown, though recent research points to genetics as well as environmental stressors.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions–disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior.” Generally, these illnesses cause dysfunction in your life. Examples include schizophrenia, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, phobias, unipolar depression, and many more. These conditions are classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th. Edition (DSM-V). Published by the American Psychiatric Association, the DSM-V is considered the guide to mental health issues. It covers five dimensions of mental illness:
• clinical syndromes, such as bipolar disorder
• developmental disorders and personality disorders, such as autism and borderline personality disorder
• physical conditions
• severity of psychosocial stressors
• and highest level of functioning in the last year, which is a measure of the mentally ill person’s ability to meet life’s demands on an annual basis.

dsm

Credit to flickr.com user Richard Masoner. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

But how does society define mental illness? There are stereotypes of the disordered person ranging from unpredictable to slovenly. Countless news stories report people with mental health issues as violent, while research shows that they’re no more violent than the general population. In fact, they are more likely to be the victims of violent crime. Thesaurus.com even lists “crazy” as the second synonym for violent.

What’s even worse is how society has treated the mentally ill. In Ancient Greece, physicians used to drill holes in people’s heads to let the evil spirits escape, and ostensibly cure their disorders. Institutionalism was rampant from the 1800s to the 1950s, and some patients were even chained to their beds and left in filth. It was as recent as the 1930s that lobotomies and malarial infections were the leading treatments for the mentally ill.

So, when the woman in the Olive Garden spoke about her friend’s husband, putting him down for suffering from mental health issues, I was irritated with her. People who endure these grueling conditions and their families have enough to deal with without others questioning their diagnosis.

Most people with mental illnesses are aware that they can sometimes be inappropriate or different than others. Mental disorders are not something you can just will yourself to cure. They require treatment ranging from talk therapy to medications, and some are even treatment resistant. Many people who do not receive treatment are unable to cope with their lives, which in turn causes them to not be able to keep the house clean or hold down a job. Many more can control their mental illness, or mitigate symptoms—with treatment.

Treatment has come a long way since the insulin-induced comas of the 1930s. But it’s not far enough. Communities have been slow to offer housing support and life skills training for the mentally ill who were deinstitutionalized in the 1950s. People who suffer from mental health disorders need more care than society has been willing or able to give.

Better funding for research into disorders would be a good start. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimated that the organization would spend $396 million on mental illness research in 2016, compared to $1 billion for diabetes research.

But what can individuals do for those of us who suffer from mental illnesses like bipolar disorder? Be kind to the mentally ill. Learn about various diagnoses and the stresses that trigger them. Advocate for better housing options and more funding for research. With these efforts, concerned people can make the world a better place for those with mental health conditions.

How do you define mental illness in your life?

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About Cassandra Stout

Freelance writer Cassandra Stout blogs at the award-winning Bipolar Parent, a comprehensive resource for parents with mental illnesses. Cassandra holds degrees from the University of Arizona in Creative Writing and Journalism. She has been a judge for the Pacific Northwest Writers' Association literary contest for nine years, where her memoir, Committed, recently placed as a finalist. She balances her literary work with raising her children, feeding her cat, and managing her bipolar disorder.
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4 Responses to “How Do You Define Mentally Ill?”

  1. dyane says:

    Well done!!!

    The last paragraph sums everything up so perfectly, and I couldn’t agree with you more.

    If I was sitting near that woman at The Olive Garden, I would’ve given her a dirty look while chewing my food with my mouth wide open. Ooops, did I actually write what I was thinking just now? 😉
    I wouldn’t really do that, Cass! I have *some* class!

    How do I define mental illness in my life? I refer to the DSM-5 symptoms for bipolar, peripartum onset since they fit me to a “T” – when it comes to that question, I’m literal, I guess. I long for a day when mental illness becomes a moot point and a cure has been found. Would our world be less creative? Well, yes, it probably would, but I feel that the suffering that would be alleviated by a cure would outweigh the benefits of more creativity being churned up amongst us…I hope that makes sense!

  2. Haha, Dyane, you’re hilarious! I admit I gave her a few dirty looks myself, but she didn’t see me, so all is well. 🙂 You make total sense to me. I, too, long for the day when mental illness will be a blip in the history books, even if creativity will take a hit. I find I do my best work when I’m stable; my depression and mania come through in my writing too much.

    Thanks for commenting! I appreciate the support!

  3. Like Dyane, I use symptoms recognized by the DSM and ISO. Neuroscience is improving our ability to recognize brain disorders structurally on brain scans. I take my diagnosis seriously in spite of the fact that I look “normal.”

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