Mental Illness is Normal
A wise person once told me “Normal is just a setting on a washing machine.” I laughed, of course, as she intended me to, but the haunting question remains at times. Is this normal? Am I normal? I hear it often from patients. One of the most painful aspects of mental illness is the isolation it brings, the sense that the sufferer is alone and outside the bounds of normal human experience. As human beings we have a profound, biological need to belong to the social group. Our very survival depends on interconnectedness. The sense of exclusion that can come from mental illness can be worse than the symptoms themselves. Sometimes I think that the most helpful thing I can tell someone on an initial visit is “Sure, that’s normal. That makes sense. I see that all the time.”
When I say that to someone it’s not a lie, or even a stretch. Statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health (2008 data) indicate that in a 12 month period 26% of adults in the United States will suffer from symptoms of a mental illness. The same data gives lifetime prevalence for mental illness as 46%. To bring those numbers to life, go to a reasonably busy restaurant at dinnertime and look around you. Statistically, one quarter of the people sitting there have had some symptoms of mental illness in the past 12 months and half of the people sitting there have had or will have symptoms in their lifetime. I encourage you to try this exercise out and really feel the impact of it. Half the people in any reasonably sized crowd are likely at some point to experience symptoms of mental illness.
If you look at it numerically, mental illness is as normal as any other aspect of human experience. It is more common then red hair, which is estimated to occur naturally in about 1-2% of the population. It is more common than left-handedness, which occurs in approximately 8% of the population. It has a similar prevalence to obesity, which is estimated at about 36% of U.S. adults in the year 2009-2010.
How would our society change if we allowed ourselves to think of mental illness as a normal, common part of our experience? What if we stopped being afraid of mental illness and looked at it as just another aspect of an individual, something that will happen to about half of us in our lifetimes? I think if we could stop seeing mental illness as something frightening but instead viewed it as something that just is, something common and normal, we could make a big difference in a lot of lives. Maybe we could even save some lives. If we could place mental illness on parity with diabetes or high blood pressure, considering it as something that requires care but that isn’t unexpected or weird, maybe we could make more progress in researching treatments that would cure or at least control the most severe symptoms of mental illness. And maybe we could treat people suffering symptoms of mental illness the way they need to be treated. As normal – just like everyone else.