On the nature of “normal”…

Normal is only a cycle on the washing machine.

Normal is defined by whatever is the current “norming of behaviour” that is present in your society, family, group, culture…in fact it’s totally dependent upon who is observing (or not observing) the person behaving.

Yet anything remotely related to our mental health is still so stigmatised that it gets hard to seek help and when you do you might find that the help increases the symptoms if you are misunderstood.

I recently was alerted to an experiment that was conducted in the 1970’s by David L. Rosenhan from Stanford University.  In short he placed people with no mental health issues in psychiatric facilities and got them to simulate very vague symptoms that may or may not be consistent with schizophrenia.

The results were stunning and it was apparent that people  were judged more by a diagnosis regardless of whether or not it was actually consistent with their behaviour or not.  Please take a moment to watch the YouTube video linked to this…

It did garner a lot of criticism and today we hope that our diagnosis of mental health issues is better – but it still seems that sometimes the public perceptions of what is normal may not have caught up and are quite possibly 1970’s (or earlier) in layman thinking.

What do I mean?  It means that the professionals who deal with the issues understand the process of stigma and it’s impact on those with or without mental health issues and diagnosis is not a rapid process anymore.  But have the public caught up?

This link http://ideas.ted.com/2013/12/18/how-should-we-talk-about-mental-health/  has a great discussion of how we can all end the stigma.

From Sane the figures below speak to how prevalent mental health issues are…

What are the figures?

  • Nearly half (45%) of the population will experience a mental disorder at some stage in their lives.
  • Almost one in five Australians (20%) will experience a mental illness in a 12-month period.
  • During a one-year period, anxiety disorders will affect 14% of the population and depression will affect 6%.
  • Depression is one of the most common conditions in young people and increases during adolescence.
  • At least one third of young people have had an episode of mental illness by the time they are 25 years old.
  • Research indicates that people receiving treatment for a mental illness are no more violent or dangerous than the
    general population.
  • People living with a mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence, especially self-harm.
  • Mental illnesses are not purely ‘psychological’ and can have many physical features.
  • Anyone can develop a mental illness and no one is immune to mental health problems.
  • Most people with mental illness recover well and are able to lead fulfilling lives in the community when they receive appropriate ongoing treatment and support.
  • Women were more likely than men to use services for mental health problems. Approximately two-thirds of people with a mental illness do not receive treatment in a 12-month period.
  • It is estimated that up to 85% of homeless people have a mental illness.

I would argue that what we see as mental illness is totally dependent upon what we think is normal at any given time and that that normal changes, lots!  If most or many of us experience some mental health problem – perhaps it is a normal part of life to at one time or other have a mental health issue.

I think we need to stop talking about normal behaviour and start looking to what is “helpful” and/or “useful” and/or “constructive”.

Normal can also be used as an excuse not to deal with something or continue to stigmatise someone else rather than deal with someone’s your own discriminatory or damaging patterns of behaviour.

“It’s normal to be jealous” comes to mind.  Jealousy can be extremely harmful behaviour if acted upon and then justifying it away as normal is not really helpful.

Jealousy is a choice, depression is not.   How we choose to deal with either is also a choice.  Healing can be a conscious endeavour, a concerted choice.

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