There seems to be an ongoing effort in this country to pathologize just about every reaction, response, distress or experience to which a human being can be exposed.
If I hadn’t read it myself, I would have thought the article I recently reviewed about the development of a pill for loneliness was a parody, until I realized that it was not. Evidently, the new “normal” is to be disordered or mentally ill.
The New Norm: Mental Ill-Health
It has become the norm for clients to sit down in my office and share the rather jaw-dropping list of the mental illnesses and disorders they have acquired on their quest for health, happiness, and relational fulfillment. Often, they seem quite content with these labels and fiercely attached to their belief that they are indeed particularly disordered.
It is, in my estimation, the most remarkable job of brainwashing I’ve ever seen. Firmly attached to their diagnostic label they proceed to discuss the equally long list of medications to which they are either currently wedded or have been prescribed in the past.
In this state of hopeless disorderedness, they seem almost perplexed about why their search for health, happiness, and wholeness has become an elusive endeavor that only continues to expand and become more complex. It is hard, at that point, to even suggest that their actual problem is less an issue of the medical diagnostic variety and more an issue of human experience, exposure, and belief.
The Biomedical Model of Health
After years of exposure to the biomedical model of health, which defines both physical and mental disease, disorder and ill-health, as a biological breakdown in the human body, the transformation is complete, the core beliefs solidified and the established narrative deeply embedded.
Mental illness has become their reality and their story and they are going to do what we all do, which is to stick to the story, continually reinforce the story and resist any efforts to change the story. For millions of Americans, “normal” has become a perpetuating state of mental ill-health, pharmaceutical intervention and a future that promises of more of the same.
Normalizing Emotional and Mental Distress
As a marriage and family therapist, I specialize in relational counseling, conciliation, and consultation. My clients are individuals, couples, and family members who are experiencing some form of emotional, mental, physical and/or spiritual distress within the context of their life and their relational makeup. In short, they are genuinely suffering and seeking some kind of relief from their pain.
And while they may understand that the disturbances in their relational bonds are a direct cause of their distress, they remain equally convinced that some unknown, unseen, and unsubstantiated biological breakdown in their body and mind is playing the leading role in their situation.
What seems difficult for many clients to embrace is the idea that their pain and distress is more likely linked to some type of environmental, experiential event, trauma, interaction, systemic pattern, treatment or life event than a biological failure.
Normal Reactions to Abnormal Circumstances
Perhaps, the argument could be made that these clients are not ill at all but are experiencing a very normal reaction to an overwhelming social, situational, relational or blatantly abnormal or unreasonable set of circumstances, experiences and relational stress. Perhaps the real question is not what is wrong with you but rather what happened to you?
Who is to say, for example, what a “normal” reaction to being beaten, raped or battered should look like? What exactly is a “normal” reaction to infidelity, divorce, the death of a child, the loss of a job, childhood abuse, abandonment, and betrayal?
Life comes with a certain amount of struggle, loss, grief, challenge, and pain. Being sad, lonely, depressed, anxious and overwhelmed does not make you disordered or ill…it makes you a human being. Our social affinity for a biological answer to every distress and the normalizing of mental ill-health as a reasonable response to the stressors and demands of life is an ideology in need of reform and reorganization.
I can think of no better place to begin that process than the redefining of what it means to be a normal human being.
Societal Pushback Against the Narrative of Mental Illness
When we allow a diagnostic manual to dictate the parameters of normal behavior, view virtually every human response through the lens of disorder, and allow the human experience to be distilled down to a biological level of dysfunction and failure, the time has come to rethink the biomedical mindset and narrative to which we have become so intrinsically fixed. Such a change will require nothing short of a social pushback against the every expanding effort to subvert and pathologize normal human processes and define normal human interactional patterns, responses and distresses as disordered mental and emotional illnesses.
It is Normal!
In the meantime, I will continue to remind my clients that it is normal to feel distressed in distressing situations, it is normal to feel overwhelmed in overwhelming circumstances, it is normal to feel anxious in anxious times and it is normal to feel sad and depressed when faced with loss.
The human experience is not always a straight or painless path. Emotional pain and struggle are part and parcel of social interaction and relational risk and life will always come with a certain amount of loss and grief. That is normal! It is also normal to need the help, support, and love of others when we are faced with less than optimal situations and circumstances. That is also normal!
Learning to thrive in adversity, learning to hold others responsible for their choices, learning to swim instead of sink, learning to embrace the past instead of running from it, and learning to rebound when life throws you a curveball and learning to ask for what you need may not be the easiest path to health, happiness and relationally satisfaction… but it is a real and effective method for dispelling pain and building a real and authentic relationship with yourself, others and the God of your understanding.
Health, Happiness and Relational Satisfaction
While it is true that struggle and distress is a normal part of life…it is also normal to move beyond the struggle to health, happiness, and harmonious relationships.
Distress, struggle, mental anguish, and emotional pain does not make you disordered or mentally ill…it makes you a human being in need of love, support, understanding, and direction…and that makes you normal!
Love and Grace,
Learn more about relational and emotional health and healing at Chrysalis Connections.
Chrysalis Connections, LLC | Teresa M. Walters, MA, LMFT, LAC | Plainfield, IN 46168 | 317-760-0604