Mental Illness Stigma and Pathologizing Normal Experiences

Mental illness stigma and pathologizing normal human experience

Mental illness stigma comes from many places and in many forms. Stigma often invalidates the experience of those of us with mental illness. One way this can happen is by pathologizing normal human experiences. By this, I mean inflating the significance of “normal” emotions and minimizing the significance of mental illness to make it seems as though they’re on par with each other.

Some of this comes from the language we use. “Anxiety” and “depression” are often used to describe “normal” human emotions, but the same words are also used for psychiatric disorders. This distinction is not always apparent to people with limited knowledge about mental illness, which is where misinterpretations come in. People may think that because they feel “anxious” or “depressed,” and those feelings are uncomfortable, they likely have a mental health disorder. Conversely, people with an anxiety disorder or a depressive disorder may be dismissed as just overinflating “normal” emotions.

The Age of Anxiety

I got thinking about this issue after watching a documentary called The Age of Anxiety. According to the producer, “The medical definition of what constitutes an anxiety disorder is expanding to include so many aspects of normal human behaviour that we’re in danger of turning half the population into psychiatric patients.”

One woman featured in the documentary appeared to have high levels of neuroticism (in a psychological rather than pejorative sense). She was shown hosting some friends for what was essentially a DSM self-diagnosis dinner party. At the end of their discussion, they concluded that all of them, and probably most people in general, “meet the threshold” for an anxiety disorder.

The DSM: Defining illness

The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the “bible” of psychiatry, was never intended to be a paint-by-numbers self-diagnosis tool. Want to know more about the DSM? My book Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis can help.

Someone might think check, check, check, I meet all the criteria for this disorder, but there’s an important piece that’s very easy to overlook. In the DSM-5, criterion D for diagnosing generalized anxiety disorder is: “The anxiety, worry, or physical symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” That “clinically significant distress” is where clinical judgment is called on to distinguish between “normal” and “disorder”.

That boundary between normal and disorder can appear murky or even non-existent if people don’t have good information and haven’t seen the devastation that mental illness can cause. Without a frame of reference, it’s easy to start making uneducated guesses about what constitutes a disorder. In turn, that can easily lead to pathologizing normal experiences.

The film included an interview with a medical historian, who suggested that if your problem can be corrected by a new boyfriend or a cheque for $5000, you probably don’t have a psychiatric disorder. Simplistic, yes, but still a good point. What is not helpful is when medical professionals contribute to the blurring of boundaries. A psychiatrist who was interviewed speculated that “by age 32, 50% of the population might qualify for an anxiety disorder.” If it’s uninformed people doing the diagnosing, perhaps, but not if it’s a skilled clinician.

Criticism of psychiatric diagnosis

The documentary described the ethically questionable marketing campaign run by the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, promoting social anxiety disorder as a common problem that could be managed with Paxil. This led the filmmakers to conclude that social anxiety is essentially a made-up condition for the purpose of selling drugs. Just because a drug company is pathologizing normal levels of “anxiety” in social situations does not in any way mean there aren’t people who truly have crippling social anxiety disorder. I think it’s irresponsible when people suggest that this is the case.

The DSM has been a frequent target for criticism when it comes to pathologizing normal experiences. In some cases, this has very much been warranted, with homosexuality being a prime example of this. But that’s not always as much of an issue as it might appear. One of the concerns often expressed when the DSM-5 came out was the removal of grief as an exclusion criterion for diagnosing a major depressive episode, as some thought that this would end up pathologizing “normal” grieving.

Yet the DSM-5 specifically addresses and cautions against pathologizing normal grief processes. It states that the purpose of the change wasn’t to diagnose grief as depression, but to recognize that, for some people, grief may precipitate a major depressive episode. Again, we run into the problem that if depression is thought to be a sham diagnosis for grieving, this can contribute to stigma that invalidates the experience of people with a genuine mood disorder.

If people are, in fact, being overdiagnosed with anxiety and depression, I suspect a major contributing factor is how doctors get paid for their time. Billing is typically done using diagnostic codes. General practitioners don’t get paid to do a lengthy psychiatric assessment, so they may not be getting the history needed to make a solid diagnosis.

Anxiety and medication use

The documentary observed that more and more people are turning to medications to manage “anxiety” over everyday issues, and general practitioners are handing them out like candy. I think insurance coverage has something to do with this; many people are more likely to have coverage for medications than psychotherapy. I find it really interesting that within the mental illness community there are a fair number of people who are really uncomfortable with medication, but among the “worried well” it seems that medications may be seen as a quick and easy fix.

A pharmacy technician who was interviewed speculated that “about 3/4 of what we have [in the pharmacy] is for anxiety”, and the pharmacist working with her added that “these things are all for situational anxiety, situational depression”. I’m glad I don’t go to that pharmacy! If society gets the idea that anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications are doled out like candy, how likely are they to take it seriously when some of us truly need medication to manage our illnesses?

There’s a lot of work still to be done in the fight against stigma, and that means that it’s important for us to keep writing, raising our voices, and sharing our stories.

You may also be interested in the post What Is… Concept Creep, which looks at how concepts expand to include things that were previously considered “normal.”

22 thoughts on “Mental Illness Stigma and Pathologizing Normal Experiences”

  1. These are great points I hadn’t thought of before, especially the fact that people use meds to alleviate their “anxiety” over “everyday issues.” It seems like the term “anxiety” is simply bandied around and that people are just jumping on the bandwagon.

      1. What I also can’t stand about the term “normal,” is how it makes people with mental illness “less than.” I’ve seen some people with various mood disorders wish they were “normal.”

        1. Language has such a big impact, and I think too often that gets overlooked. Any time that there are preconceived social ideas of what “normal” should look like that’s going to translate into a lot of people being pushed away to the fringes.

  2. Revenge of Eve

    How does a word like normal exist? Who defines it? I mean, really. It bothers me to no end when people claim OCD as their “problem”. I have noticed a huge increase in this self diagnosis and it drives me bonkers! I literally encounter this daily, someone saying that they have it. I can’t help but roll my eyes when in fact my diagnosed OCD wants to point out all the ways they are clearly NOT ocd.
    This post explains so much! I wish I could view the show 🙁

    1. Yeah, the people who self-diagnose as OCD seem to have little understanding of what it actually is. I tried looking for the show but couldn’t find it anywhere other than the CBC’s website 🙁

  3. Revenge of Eve

    And most of the anxiety medication is highly addictive adding to the prescription abuse epidemic. These mis-diagnosis are creating unhealthy habits and unnecessary addictions.

    1. Definitely. The people who actually need benzos are often reluctant to take them, but it seems like the people who don’t need them are happy to just dive right in.

  4. I have long thought it problematic that many psychiatric diagnoses have ‘common’ or vernacular meanings that are very different – not just ‘anxiety’ or ‘depression’, but ‘OCD’ and even ‘schizophrenia.’ Although I have mixed feelings about self-diagnosis – I think sometimes it can be necessary. But this is why I usually qualify my talk about being on the autistic spectrum as being only possible, as I’ve heard different things from different psychiatrists and psychotherapists.

    1. My sense is the people who actually have these disorders but haven’t yet found a professional that will diagnosis them talk about it very differently than the “OMG, I’m, like, so OCD” types.

  5. This is yet again another great post from you! I love your insight and thoughtfulness when you’re considering the information you have to write a post. Interesting points I often find myself thinking about too.

    1. Thanks! I watched this show a little while back and thought damn, I need to write about this. It certainly makes it easier that in a professional context I’m already very familiar with the DSM.

  6. Hi ! Great post ! Honestly when you spoke of anxiety and depression and people making assumptions for possibly having a disorder and that they also have some how become confused as primary emotions … I think people also tend to confuse immense stress with anxiety and with stress comes exhaustion. But who knows right ? Just something that popped into my heard when reading it ! It’s unfortunate . It sometimes also bugs me … I’ll have someone say they have so much anxiety because they are so busy… or something like this.. but In actuality it’s stress. Sometimes I want to be like , well actually if you’re feeling anxiety.. there’s fear and worry … you’d probably be have extreme black or white thinking or thinking the worst could happen and as you may no.. one thought leads to another which leads to 101010 more thoughts and then in the end you don’t get anything done.

    1. I agree with you that people tend to confuse stress and anxiety. Emotions don’t get talked about enough, which makes it harder for people to understand what these different terms mean.

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