Why we’re going about mental illness the wrong way

Likening sadness to illness has long been thought of as a convenient means of ridding the world of grief and perpetual melancholy. The time for this misconception to end is now. Mental illness is a myth, and before you lambast this article, I urge you to carry on reading. 

It was only until recently that mental illnesses fell under the domain of disease. Prior to this shift disease was thought of largely as ‘an alteration of the bodily structure’ such as smallpox or syphilis,  whilst mental afflictions lay outside this definition. What constitutes a disease now, however, includes both inhibitions to bodily structure and function, the latter of which pertains to hysteria, bipolar disorder and depression, among others. Consequently, modern psychiatry as an institute of medicine has grown to unprecedented heights and will continue to do so. 

The key difference between the medical and psychiatric diseases is this: whereas in medicine diseases are discovered, in psychiatry they are invented. Classifying depression as a disease has, in my humble opinion, done more to worsen the effects of sorrow than to erode them. Hepatitis B is the same whether you are in Hawaii or Honduras. Sorrow is not. The diverse nature in which notions of sorrow are explored is indicative of how deeming depression as an uncompromising disease is both damaging and ultimately wrong.

Happiness is by no means our natural state of being. If you believe it to be so, then you are depriving yourself of the reality that sadness is as integral to our human psyche as its counterpart. List every emotion you can think of and I can guarantee that the majority of those listed will have more negative connotations than positive. A telltale sign of a healthy newborn baby is crying. In one of the most profound instances of one’s entire life, wailing is met with elated relief. We must not think of sadness as one dimensional as it is quite the opposite. 

Our problem as a society is that we have an incessant need to categorise and order everything around us. We like to be certain. We like to classify. We like balance. When we experience a prolonged period of grief we reassure ourselves that we have the ability to immediately recognise this so-called issue and in turn rectify it. Branding people as having depression lulls us into a false sense of self-assurance because we feel as if we now have the ability to cure that which we have labelled. The fact we endeavour to cure such melancholy in the first place is part of the problem.

Classifying happiness, and pursuing a life of moderation, as conventional norms has harmful consequences. When so-called norms appear to be awry it is usually seen as a problem. Bachelorhood is a ‘problem’ because conventionally most people aspire to get married at some stage in their lives. Thus bachelorhood becomes an illness of sorts because it represents the failure to marry. Governments champion wellbeing and, usually, prioritise their citizens’ wellbeing in the form of social and economic policy. When an inhabitant fails to display positive wellbeing, immediately it is considered a problem, a possible infringement of our species’ progression. It posits sadness as alien and unconventional; a disease. An inhibition. Socio-economic systems are well-suited for gently keeping in line disconnected and dissenting members or groups of society. 

People experiencing sorrow, therefore, feel as though there is something fundamentally amiss with them, that their emotions are ‘wrong’’. Their inability to act ‘normally’ reinforces their belief that they are a burden on their families, their friends, and ultimately society as a whole. We need to accept the reality that it is completely normal to feel sad. Instead, we perceive sadness as shameful, as a weakness. Sadness is a strength of character, it is an acceptance of our innate nature as human beings. It is the balance between happiness and sadness which helps clarify the universe around us. 

Our world is constantly in flux, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that our emotions are also in a constant state of alteration. Once we come to accept our sorrow, to invest time in exploring it, engaging with it, we can begin to find happiness hidden within our melancholy. 

Instead, so many of us use moderation as a defence mechanism against sadness, in the vain hope that docility will negate feelings of morose. Coming to terms with the inevitability of sadness is the first step towards living a fulfilling and contented life. Living life in the ‘middle zone’ is an attempt to avoid sadness at the expense of truly realising unhindered happiness. Limiting emotional exposure is restrictive and inward. It deprives one of developing meaningful relationships with those around them. We need to reject the hunger for conservatism and open our minds to the emotional roller-coaster that is life.

Happiness is and always will be a comparative emotion. Its relationship with sorrow is symbiotic. Without one the other cannot exist. Like light and dark, night and day. Trying to purge one from yourself in an attempt to enhance the other is counter-intuitive. Of course, this is not easy. In an interconnected world of screens, it is as easy as ever to trap yourself into the mindset that you are inadequate. Plato considered sight to be the noblest of the five senses. His notion of beauty, that of a visual one, has proved transcendent and holds true still to this day. The Vitruvian man resonates with every gym-goer and social media influencer. Make it easier for yourself, realise that nothing is sacred, that behind that picture with 2,000 likes lies a person desperate to prove to people whom they will never meet that they are good enough.

We have the power within ourselves to ensure we lead happy and prosperous lives. But in order to do so, we must cease trying to rid ourselves of sadness. Happiness and sadness are two sides of the same coin. Heads or tails? The choice is yours. 

Written by Tedd Askin

2 Comments

  1. Way to collapse all of mental illness into depression! There are problems with psychiatry and more generally how society shuns sadness, but this is a truly wild and misinformed conclusion. Of course not all sadness should be treated as depression, but that doesn’t negate actual depression. Please try harder, or like read anything about psychiatry instead of Plato? As someone who has been hospitalised for a severe personality disorder, this narrative is beyond harmful and is about as useful as a “think positive” to someone debilitated by mental illness.

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