Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Mental health and super powers

a.m.k. has studied his share of psychology, and for years, he has volunteered at a psych health centre near Centretown.

Some kind of crazed
I often sit on my balcony and wonder about psychological disorders. Specifically, I wonder whether they exist.

Over the past few decades, there have been smalls shifts to think of "disordered" behaviours as merely differences, not to have a value judgment. Some of these behaviours have made the jump to being "ordered," but some of them haven't.

For example, homosexuality was considered a disorder until 1985. Back in the day, the majority of people did not accept that homosexuality was healthy.

An aside about the struggle for gay rights

It seems that a large part of the world has gotten past this, and although there is a lot of hatred for the gay community still, I think most heterosexual people don't have a problem with homosexuality, or at least not one that they would openly talk about. This trending-in-the-right-direction runs parallel with the gay rights movement, whose battles for acceptance are being fought largely under our noses in communities like Ottawa, where people don't necessarily think about it so much.

Contrary to what some might think, Ottawa is not a socially-conservative city. For most of my life I called somewhere else home, and very few people were openly gay there -- at least in high school, and from what I know, after as well. I'm not sure how some cities progress faster than others in a globalized world like ours, but I swear it happens, and Ottawa is less likely to produce homophobic kids than virtually any other city in the country from what I can tell. That is not to say that homophobia does not exist in Ottawa -- it absolutely does, and I have come across it several times. But the homophobia that exists in many other cities is far more noticeable and far more hateful, if that makes sense.

Here, it's not unusual to see gay couples holding hands walking down Bank. Down Wyandotte in Windsor? I've never seen it, and I lived there 18 years. In other cities, like Windsor, I get the impression that it is much scarier to be gay because you're not sure if someone is going to jump you and you're nearly certain people are going to gawk and say something hateful. In Ottawa, I've been cat-called by men sitting on the patio at CP. I can't see an official gay village designation getting passed in many other Canadian cities. There is still a ways to go, yes, but these are steps in the right direction, for sure, and steps that perhaps have not been taken to the same extent in other areas.

The designation "disorder"

It wasn't always like this. Homosexuality used to be considered a disorder. Few people, even those in more right-wing communities, would dare call it that now.

Are there conditions now that are labelled as disorders but not really warranting a diagnosis? Maybe. "Diagnosis" has a very pervasive negative haunt to it because it has to do with the psychology--the insides of someone. And it's perceived that people have some, or at least, more, control over their psychologies and what is invisible to others.

Some very thin vertical lines between these categories. (Source)

Are there other conditions that do not warrant that "disorder" status because they do no harm to anyone, but can be better described as "differences"? Take personality disorders for example. Does someone ever really need to be told that their personalities are a textbook example of what a bad, malfunctioning person is? Can someone control being Schizoid?

What if their personality entails treating other people as tools to get what you want, unempathetic of their well-being?

Yes, that last example could be warranted as disordered behaviour. A human unable to feel remorse when carelessly disregarding the life and liberty of another person. That's dangerous. That creates harm. That is also a symptom of Antisocial Personality Disorder, a component of psychopathy.

A person who avoids confrontations at all costs? Shy beyond belief because they don't want to say the wrong thing? Probably not qualities that will help you succeed in the westernized world, but disordered?

Some people worry more than others. Does that warrant the label of a disorder?

It might. It depends how harmful it is to their psychological well-being, if at all. When psychology was emerging as a respected field, there were definitely value judgements placed on people who exhibited certain behaviours. Even today, people with mental illnesses suffer from much more social stigma than people who have physical handicaps or skin cancer. (Something like Alzheimer's is likely somewhere in between--you can see the brain deterioration if shown, but when people act different and don't know who they are, it's hard to see them as the same person or to be able to treat them like it.)

I am willing to bet that the dangers and harmfulness of conditions like worry are over-exaggerated in our society. Actually, I think it can perpetuate the worry people have--an anxious person can become more anxious when being told they have anxiety, for example. It can also become a scapegoat for the person not wanting to make a concentrated effort to get better.

Am I saying everyone with anxiety is faking and could be okay if not diagnosed? God no. I'm just saying that, generally speaking, we over-analyze as a society. We need labels and to keep people and their behaviours in perfect boxes to explain them away. When a person with some issues gets a label that they don't necessarily need, it can do more harm than good because it can be used as an explanation for some of the issues they are facing; this can be good in many cases--it's nice to know you're not alone and other people have the same type of shit to deal with that you have--but it's also easier, I think, to lay on the couch and accept the fact that you're depressed if you're told so by a doctor. We then can think, I'm lying here sulking because I'm depressed, instead of I should go out and do something.

(Of course, I am only talking here about borderline cases of mental health issues, or cases where diagnoses are not needed. I've said it above and I'll say it again: this is not true of all diagnoses. Many, many are helpful, in my opinion. I'm more talking about the societal inclination we have to diagnose and some of the potential side-effects that it can cause in cases that could perhaps be avoided if we changed how we viewed personality differences and "atypical" behaviour.)

To qualify for a diagnosis today, the condition in question must limit your quality of life; it must be disabling and distressing to how you experience your life. What if someone believes their homosexuality to cause distress, if only because it leads to their being mistreated by others. Does that mean it's a disorder? Of course not. But then why are some other conditions considered disorders which (1) don't cause people to harm anyone else and (2) are not unpleasant in and of themselves? Or what if, perhaps, they are unpleasant, but adding a label does nothing to help that person? Maybe it has a negative effect on them, for any of the above-mentioned reasons or for countless others that I won't get into. Maybe it's helpful. It does depend on the individual case, for sure, but I am suggesting that perhaps we are progressing more towards over-diagnosis and over-medication instead of trending toward a society that values acceptances and uniqueness.

The power of labels

We might think of some traits as disorders just because they're named that way. A lot is in a name; we use names as heuristics, mental shortcuts in a way to navigate more quickly to what needs our attention. If I'm constantly distracted by the smell of manure, it'd be hard to work in a stable. So we get a lot out of things like names because they pre-package information for our brain so it doesn't have to download the information as intricately. Imagine if we had to really take in each individual word in a sentence: we would take ten times longer to read.

The problem is the environment in which these labels are created sometimes. Many disorders do not exist globally. Are labels perpetuating a certain type of behaviour? Do certain conditions within society foster maladaptive behaviours? Mood disorders are more prevalent in richer countries.

What happens when people are different

Why did being gay get such a bad wrap when things like sexuality began to be a growing concern? Who sat at the council to make it have a negative sound to it?

However it happened, the dominant society went and took being gay to being negative, which is something that our present society, progressively so in Ottawa, is finally reacting against.

People love to have control, and that's understandable. It's scary when we don't know what to expect from the world. And it's scary when we don't know what to expect from the person talking to her/himself on the bus beside us. Since they don't follow our notion of what is a proper way to act, who knows, they might stab us.

Some people who have mental health struggles are dangerous, it's true. This is also true: some people who don't have mental health struggles are dangerous. Also true: many of the people who have mental health struggles are not obviously struggling with any issue. In fact, many of the people with mental health struggles who ARE dangerous, for example, people with psychopathy, are well-functioning in our society. In fact, they have many personality traits that are considered desirable, often intelligent, motivated and charming. You couldn't pick them out of a crowd. Chances are, though, the person talking to her/himself on the bus or the person who has panic attacks is much more concerned with their own internal struggles than they are about stabbing you. But, these people do not fit in with our perception of normality. And we are scared.

These days, some differences carry more weight than others in the social consciousness. When Ms. Jenna Talackova was vying for the title of Miss Universe Canada, there was a lot of talk about it, and a lot of support for her, but also a lot of hate.

Clearly lacking order.
People with depression and anxiety process information and their world differently than people who do not have depression or anxiety. People who are gay or transgendered probably process their worlds differently than heterosexual people because their experiences are also different. Women process their worlds differently than men as a whole. But of course, each woman processes her world differently from every other woman, too. Consciousness is different for each one of us, and we never really can know truly how someone else feels. First rule of active listening, never say 'I know exactly how you feel' or 'I understand'. So why draw imaginary lines between genders or sexual preferences when they exist between each and every one of us? In a way, we all have borders between us because we all have a different consciousness, but in another way we are all humans with brains and bodies and have, what we expect, to be a similar understanding of basic physics. We all have language and eat and shit.

How we can handle all this

I'm not really advocating for getting rid of the DSM. I do think, however, that the way we treat people who are different needs a serious overhaul. Some people with anxiety could really use help with the unpleasant feelings of worry they experience, but if people were more understanding, it wouldn't have to affect their work and social life as it can in many cases. If people treated each other better, perhaps there would be so many instances of legitimately diagnosable depression or anxiety, and the cases that are borderline now would be completely non-existent.

I can't stop you from labelling me. Labels are healthy insofar as they're temporary, as they can give way to a clearer picture once you get to know a person. We need to judge people by things like how they're dressed sometimes. I don't want to walk next to guy who I would classify as looking violent on dark road or a back alley. That move would cost me more often than walking on the same dark road or in the same back alley with a beautiful girl in running gear. In this case, I call the quick judgment a life-preserver.

I can, however, ask that you don't make a value judgment on me when it's unnecessary. I have a trait that is strange and different and could be labelled conveniently, but that doesn't mean that you have the right to judge anything. That behaviour that isn't hurting anybody else and not myself either. If you had to make a judgment on me because of your own safety that's a different story, but that's a very rare consideration.

My confession

I do not sweat as much as other people.

You know who else 
didn't sweat much?
I have a friend and when we play a short set of tennis he sweats buckets -- it's actually pretty repulsive. He can hardly breathe or walk when we're done, and I just stand there with my testicles hanging out waiting for him to get up again to finish the game. He sweats when walking up stairs. My muscles get sore pretty fast, I'm far from an athlete, but do I sweat? Not really. I worry that I don't drink enough water.

I have another friend who I perform with sometimes on stage. I swear before he even gets on the stage he is already dripping wet. I curse the shows with good lighting because it shows the beads flying off him a dog coming out of a bath. Meanwhile I am behind him on stage, where it is supposed to be hotter, perfectly dry. Even though I'm flailing around on drums and he's just standing with a guitar, he's the one who overheats up there.

Is it because I'm in such stellar shape? Do I hardly break a sweat after doing sprints, playing tennis or performing on stage because drinking bourbon and lattes and having long baths makes me more physically apt than my peers?

Probably not.

Do I have a problem with my pores? Is my body unable to extract liquid? I haven't cried in years. Would anyone think badly of me for not sweating?

I hope not.

Everyone has differences. Maybe sweating makes me unique. Some people are gay, and some are shy. None of those things are inherently unpleasant to live with or hurtful to others. If someone existed who didn't have anything that was different from the majority of other people, I wouldn't particularly want to meet them, other than for the scientific discovery.

Why not turn the tables on the shrouds of negative value judgments? Everyone in the world has something about them that is different from the general norm--let's call it a superpower. Some can hold their breath for a very long time. Some can run long distances without breaking a sweat. Some can avoid disaster by carefully planning everything--they're who friends ask for help sorting out their own disheveled lives.

These are all our superpowers. What are yours?

a.m.k. is too polite to mention that he's never farted before.

1 comment:

  1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2012/may/14/moral-jane-svoboda-wingnuts-politics


    The moral of Jane Svoboda: in our politics, we are all 'wingnuts'

    "After the shame of tagging a mentally ill woman as a 'crazy' homophobe, we should realise there is a continuum of delusion"

    "The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the psychiatrists' bible, defines one key criterion of "delusional disorder" as "false beliefs based on incorrect inference about external reality that persist despite evidence to the contrary". Meanwhile, one in six American voters think Barack Obama is a Muslim. To be fair, "delusional disorder" also requires that the beliefs in question aren't widely shared, whereas the belief in Obama's Muslim-ness is."