Watch Out for the Mental Illness Trap

The term “mental illness” is thrown around quite a bit these days. Whenever a mass shooting occurs in public, many proclaim the need to confront the problem of mental illness in society. Whenever a teenager threatens suicide, or overdoses on drugs, or succumbs to the intoxicating message of a cult leader, we hear again the warnings about widespread mental illness in society.

The message conveyed by the words, “mental illness,” has unfortunate collateral consequences: First, it wrongly casts a wide net over large segments of the population, and scares a lot of people. Many mistakenly see this net as fitting folks from the mass shooter motivated by some vast delusional system, to the confused teenager struggling to find a self-identity. Second, the phrase ignores the fact that most mentally ill people do not go around shooting others, and a lot of those who shoot others are not mentally ill. Third, the phrase does not suggest how to confront the crisis. For instance, some blame the schools for indoctrinating children into an unstable “woke” culture, but these critics ignore the role of “helicopter” parents who refuse to allow their children to learn what it means to fail, and how to deal rationally with that failure. Fourth, the phrase is so general and ill-defined that it allows people to use it to demonize and reject those who are different or troublesome.

Just what are the professional criteria of mental illness? Some of the more prominent behavioral criteria include fundamental weaknesses and inabilities in several areas of behavior: separating reality from desires; relating to others rationally; understanding and empathizing with others’ distress and needs; discarding arrogant thinking about self in favor of humility; facing challenges without reliance on others; accepting personal accountability. If you are mentally ill, you will show deficiencies – consistently and over a period of time – in many of these areas. But note that the focus in this list is on behaviors that a troubled person, with professional help, can possibly work on, not on their emotions and feelings that are a normal part of living.

Most emotionally distressed people who feel they are mentally ill are probably not. Unfortunately, those who are troubled do not receive the message emphasizing actions, because that is not the focus of society when talking about mental illness. Rather, people – especially the young ones – hear the false message from a variety of media platforms, that if they experience emotions like shame, anxiety, sadness, confusion, frustration, ambivalence, and fear, then they are mentally ill – not normal. This is a false and dangerous message that can trigger deeper despair, depression, and thoughts of suicide, especially in those who already feel rejected, abandoned, confused, and alone. The irony is, the experience of those emotions is quite normal and a part of living. The key to coping with them is to acquire actions that help you deal with them in rational and confident ways. But, again, too many people in our society – especially adolescents and young adults – have been protected from adversity by parents and other adults, with the unfortunate consequence being that they never learn how to deal with negative experiences and emotions. That inability makes them susceptible to the misleading statements about mental illness, beginning in adolescence and extending well into adulthood.

So, to the extent that “mental illness” presents a problem in society, how should we handle it? What should we be telling people? First, we must establish a proper alternative context for the phrase. Instead of “mental illness,” let’s talk about helping people make wise choices about their behavior when it comes to coping with stress. Second, let’s help people understand that it is not abnormal to feel anxious, ashamed, or sad, and that they need to try and change their inappropriate behavior in coping with these emotions. Third, let’s convince people that they can learn to depend on themselves rather than blindly following someone who would encourage them to cope by antagonizing and hating others. Finally, as an alternative to worrying about feelings and emotions and criticizing themselves for holding those feelings and emotions, let’s help people see the importance of accepting reality, of being accountable for their actions, of striving for some humility in their interactions with others, of working toward empathy and understanding of others, and of taking action to serve others in need. If you’re worried about whether your distressing emotions make you “abnormal” or having an “illness,” modify your perspective to a focus not on emotions but on changing your behavior for the betterment of yourself and those around you.

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