Increased use of psychiatric language means ordinary distress is being medicalised, while the seriously ill are not being heard
Many years ago, in the fading hours of a house party, I sat outside in the garden with an old friend. From inside came the distant thud of music and pockets of laughter – a thousand miles from the conversation we were having. My friend’s relationship had ended a few weeks previously, and that night his heartbreak was palpable and raw. He told me how disconnected he felt from the people inside the house, from his life, and then he said something that made my heart sink. “When I look into the future,” he said, avoiding eye contact, “I can’t see anything ahead of me.” At that moment – I thought – something became clear: he was clinically depressed.
Over the following days and weeks, I told my friend what I knew about the disorder, and the benefits of therapy and antidepressants, and encouraged him to go to the doctor. Even though he was reluctant, I was sure of how much he would benefit, so I persisted. But then, after about a month of checking in with him, something strange happened: he started to feel better, without any professional help at all. I distinctly remember the moment, a disintegration of what I thought I understood about mental health. Evidently, since my friend’s acute distress passed within a few weeks, he didn’t sit clearly in the territory of what we might call “mental illness”. But he certainly wasn’t mentally healthy for those weeks either. Instead, I realised, he sat somewhere in the vast grey plains between the two.
Lucy Foulkes is an honorary lecturer in psychology at UCL, and author of Losing Our Minds: What Mental Illness Really Is – and What It Isn’t
In the UK, the charity Mind is available on 0300 123 3393 and Childline on 0800 1111. In the US, Mental Health America is available on 800-273-8255. In Australia, support is available at Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14, and at MensLine on 1300 789 978