The Truth About Mental Illness: You’re Not Mentally Ill
It’s great that the stigma around mental illness has lessened.
But in the name of acceptance, some individuals assume that mental illness is like acne…everyone has it just a little bit or at certain times in their life.
It’s truth that for many individuals, mental illness is not chronic. Still, according to the National Institute for Mental Health, only 6.7% of U.S. adults have had one major depressive episode. Only 2.3% have OCD in their lifetime, and only 6.8% have PTSD. Only 4.4% have bipolar disorder. Of course, many individuals don’t have healthcare access sufficient to warrant a diagnosis, and he numbers may be off for a number of reasons, but still, mental illness is hardly as common as acne.
And yet, it is common, and worryingly so, for people to diagnose themselves with these rare conditions or, worse, to trivialize it by characterizing their behaviors as symptoms. When we assume that mental illness is so common (1 in 4, says the headlines, but that number is largely based on predictive models), we assume that any quirks are due to mental illness.
You Don’t Have OCD
As someone whose OCD nearly killed her, it sets my veins afire when someone casually says they’re “OCD” simply because they’re anal-retentive or neurotic. First of all, those conditions are nothing like OCD. Second, OCD is not about exerting control. It can take many forms, but simply involves a dual process of obsession and compulsion. That means that OCD sufferers’ rituals largely revolve around avoidance, not control.
Moreover, if you think that your color-coding or filing scheme, home organization porn, or unusual food tastes mean you have OCD — or you just like to joke that you do — ask yourself this: Do those things bring you pain? Are you unable to escape your house or stop organizing? If you’re able to happily organize your scarves and walk away, you don’t have OCD. If you re-do the scarves a hundred times so that one of them doesn’t come loose and strangle you in the night, you may have OCD.
You Don’t Have PTSD
Having an ick feeling when you recall an unpleasant event is common. Having a crippling flashback or dissociative episode when you’re not even thinking about the event is not. The true nature of trauma is extreme; “extreme trauma” is redundant. Getting nervous about the company holiday party because you drank too much and barfed on your office crush is not PTSD. If you dissolve into a paralyzed pile of mush whenever you hear the song that was playing when someone at the office party sexually assaulted you, you may have PTSD.
You’re Not Depressed
One unfortunate quirk of the English language is that completely different things go by the same name. For example, “myth” and “theory” means very different things in the common tongue than they do in academic circles. Unfortunately, “depressed” has come to mean “sad.” While depressed people can be sad, they’re not necessarily so.
Take me as an example. I have a good life. I have very little to be sad about. I still have days when I can’t get out of bed, can’t take care of myself, can’t overcome feelings of dread and malaise. That’s because I have depression, which is a cognitive condition.
Now, sad incidents can trigger depression. As I noted above, many adults experience a “major depressive episode” at some point in their life. But being sad because your favorite show was cancelled is simply not depression. And because depression is a killer disease whose fatal symptom is suicide, it’s not something to be taken lightly.
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