STATS ARTICLES 2003
Physical Illness is a Fact of Life: So Why Not Mental Illness?
February 19, 2003
Fear of medicalizing ordinary experience is no cure for mental illness
Acres of newsprint and billions of bytes have been expended in recent years bemoaning the increased "medicalization" of ordinary experience. These stories claim that no one is sad anymore, we all have clinical depression; no one is lazy, he has attention-deficit disorder, no one is shy, she's socially phobic, and so on.
Spiked-Online, a UK webzine, and The Times of London held a conference this week to address concerns about the notion that "one in four" people suffer mental illness each year. The Times featured a story headlined "It's Time to
Stop Taking the Tablets, You're Not Ill, Just Alive."
Another piece looked at the role of drug companies in this process, by reviewing two recent books on the subject. All of the stories were highly critical of the notion that mental illness can be as common as prescription rates and people's complaints suggest it is.
But what these critiques always fail to address is the following problem: Each year, more than 25% of the population suffers at least one physical illness-in fact, 23% of the American population between 20 and 74 has high blood pressure and a similar proportion have cardiovascular disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And almost all of us have at least one bout of cold or flu each year.
If these illnesses are so prevalent in our bodies-and if the brain is the most complex object in the known universe, as most experts claim, why should we assume that our brains are immune to mental illness?
No one says that drug companies invented high blood pressure or the common cold to make money. And while checklist diagnoses for mental illnesses almost always contain one or two items that any normal person would tick off, the diagnoses are as reliable as those for physical illnesses when the full criteria for the disease must be met.
The opponents of medicalization come from both left and right; The former decry the capitalistic greed of the drug companies and the fall of talk therapy, the latter warn that a diagnosis of mental illness provides an excuse to avoid responsibility.
However, as Michael Fumento pointed out in an article about conservatives and attention-deficit disorder, if a mental illness is appropriately treated, there is no diminution of responsibility. In fact, the excuse for poor performance is removed.
People with mental illness are already burdened with the stigma attached to their condition and the widespread public belief that they could just "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" if they wanted to do so badly enough. They don't need to be told they are just brainless dupes of the drug companies or irresponsible bums-or otherwise used to make political points.
Some people may be over-medicated while others lack treatment, drug companies certainly sell their products hard, governments may over-reach in trying to treat social problems as individual mental conditions. However, this takes nothing away from the fact that mental illness is highly prevalent, and real. There are real critiques to be made relating to medication use and its possible effects on the future of human nature. But they don't involve denying the evidence.