What is mental illness?

Christian Jarrett over at the British Psychological Society’s research blog has a wonderful description of mental illness in a recent post:

Illness is like the street you’ve driven down your whole life. So familiar you’ve never bothered to look around. We’ve all experienced illness, either first-hand or via someone we know, but rarely do we stop to wonder what it really is.


Mental illness has been in the news quite often, the more often the better if we are to educate the public and increase awareness. Judy Neale shared her personal story, in this article, of bi-polar disorder and as someone living with mental illness. Judy used poetry to reflect upon her own experiences, and find the words to describe her world through the prism of depression. Judy describes her poems as “insight into an imperfect world as a survivor”.

The challenges that Margaret Trudeau, wife of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, experienced were hard to hide during his days as Prime Minister. In this revealing piece, Margaret speaks her mind about how she tried to hide from the truth of her bipolar disorder, which went undiagnosed and untreated for years. Margaret shared that “this wasn’t an easy book to write. Mental illness has always been the elephant in the room. People don’t address it, they don’t want to talk about it, they certainly don’t want to talk about it in public.”

A recent study published in the Australian Psychologist found that university students suffer from psychological distress at a rate three times higher than in the general population. The authors indicate that the results highlight the need for universal early interventions to prevent the development of severe mental illness in university students.

A recent article in Seed Magazine describes the challenges of ‘redefining mental illness’ and the limits of defining mental disorders and whether we can understand disability purely in terms of the mind. The piece goes on to explain that the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) “is scheduled to be released in 2013, and one of the key areas slated for change is the definition of “mental disorder.” The problem is, even the DSM acknowledges that defining a mental disorder is an imprecise science. The current version includes as part of its definition a consideration that there is no definition of the term that covers all situations—and no one is suggesting that disclaimer be removed.”

A recent systematic survey by the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Mental Health Findings conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a public health agency within the Department of Health and Human Services shows that nearly one in five adult Americans has experienced mental illness in the past year. These stats are alarming. The prevalence of such illness is significant, but for many reasons services are not sought out to provide the care that is needed. The stigma that associated with mental illness certainly may contribute to the disparity of accessing services.

It’s time for a change, mental illness needs to come out from the shroud of the stigma it currently holds. In her recent book, Margaret Trudeau stated “We’re all dealt a bad hand at some point. You just have to accept the hand you’re dealt, get the tools you need to deal with it and try to be the best you can be in spite of it.” There are tools for mental illness that are no different from tools and interventions used for every other illness we suffer from.

You may be interested in finding out more about mental illness and how to reduce the stigma. Have a look at NAMI StigmaBusters, it’s a network of dedicated advocates across the country and around the world who seek to fight inaccurate and hurtful representations of mental illness.