By Francesca Greane
Every mental illness has a definition. That is, someone has — after extensive research — determined what characterized each and every illness.
The purpose of this is clear; it helps everyone understand what a mental health illness means.
Take depression for instance — defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as a condition characterized by symptoms such as:
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
- Decreased energy or fatigue
- Moving or talking more slowly
- Feeling restless or having trouble sitting still
- Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
You can’t deny the need for such clear-cut definitions, for how would professionals diagnose individuals suffering from a mental illness without them?
But the problem with a definition is that it is so…defining. That is, it insinuates that every mental illness manifests in the same way in every individual.
Whilst these explanations are crammed full of caveats like ‘there are several types of anxiety disorder’ or that ‘not everyone who is depressed experiences the same symptoms — some people experience only a few symptoms, whilst others experience many’ this isn’t something that is always heeded.
Exemplifying the fact that the behaviors of someone with a mental health condition can deviate from those prescribed by a dictionary, Stephen Buckly, head of information at Mind, noted that
“OCD and other anxiety disorders manifest themselves in many different ways and at different times…even people who appear to ‘have it all’ on the outside could still be experiencing an anxiety disorder. It’s possible for someone living with an anxiety disorder to mask the impact it’s having on their life; for other people the impact of anxiety can be highly debilitating.”
So, while we are told that not everyone will manifest a mental health condition in the same way, this doesn’t stop members of the public, friends, or family only looking out for certain signs and symptoms in individuals with a mental illness.
This results in a new form of mental health stigma.
When talking about mental health stigmas, the most common association is a discrimination against someone who has a mental illness. But what people don’t think about is these individuals feeling further stigmatized because they don’t fit neatly into those predefined boxes that definitions create.
For instance, those suffering from anxiety or depression but who are extroverted may have the severity of their condition overlooked by people who don’t understand how these two can occur simultaneously. Or, individuals with obsessive compulsive disorder whose condition is ignored because they don’t show the characteristic symptom of regular hand washing.
So I’m not here to say we should abolish definitions of mental illnesses. Their merits far outweigh their dangers — but I am saying that we need to acknowledge that these misconceptions exist. We need to understand that not all mental health conditions will look the same in every individual and that, even if someone doesn’t match your preconception of what their particular condition looks like, they still need the same understanding as someone whose symptoms and struggle are textbook.