In recent years I have become increasingly concerned about the way society talks about mental health.
It started when I worked at an American summer camp. I witnessed what it’s like to live in a country that constantly labels and medicalises emotions.
Everyone was on ‘something’. At dinner times, the camp nurse walked around the children’s tables, handing out little plastic cups of medication. I was astonished by how many were dosed up because they had depression, anxiety, ADHD or another thing. Some of the kids were as young as eight. I watched them trying to do normal things, like kick a ball around or play with their friends. But they were different; dopey, detached, and in some cases extremely anxious.
I write this a day after The Duchess of Cambridge penned a piece for The Huffington Post to spread awareness of mental health issues in young people, and to end the stigma around asking for “emotional or psychiatric help”. “We know there is no shame in a young child struggling with their emotions or suffering from a mental illness”, she writes.
It is an article with very honourable aims. And yet, it does concern me. The reality is that there are, indeed, young people experiencing real difficulties with mental illness – whom society could better support.
But there are also lots of children who live completely oblivious to mental illness, and will never consider if it affects them. This ignorance is bliss.
That bubble might be about to break. The Duchess’ piece might encourage parents to monitor their children for symptoms of psychiatric disorders, when they are not there. It might even make children start to diagnose themselves.
‘Mental illness’ is an extremely broad term, that encompasses a whole set of states. At one end of the spectrum, you have life-changing disorders such as Schizophrenia, hypomania and psychosis. At the other you have anger, loneliness and anxiety. Many of these are normal variants of human experience, and often justified responses to unhappy situations. But they are increasingly becoming pathologised.
According to MentalHealth.org, 1 in 10 children and young people are affected by mental health problems, which is an alarming statistic. But I’m sure it would be a lot less if, instead of seeing states such as anxiety as an ‘illness’, we granted it a functional part of our existence.
In America, they bear the consequence of a government that heavily publicised mental illness in all its guises. And the result is a highly medicalised and reductionist country, where people cannot allow themselves to feel negative emotions. American children are the victims of this psychiatry-obsession – any sadness or anxiety they now feel a symptom of something more sinister.
Yes, we must help young people with mental health issues more. But we must be sensitive not to colour the experiences of children who do not need intervention with our adult knowledge. We must allow them to explore their own emotions without telling them they’re wrong, or seeking psychiatric counsel. Getting children with psychiatric problems help is not so much to do with spreading awareness, but using good judgement.