Saturday, March 12, 2011

"It could never happen to me" and a culture of Sanism

The more exposure I have to the field of mental health, the more I realize that a curious fallacy has taken hold in the minds of the general population. Mental illness has come to be seen as something that is either there, or is not. They see it as black and white, with raving psychotics and suicidal depressives on one side, and the rest of the world (themselves included, of course) on the other. In reality, it is a gradient, with very few people completely untouched by the slightest hint. It's hard to draw the line that says This is just normal variation and healthy, and This is mental illness. You simply can't arbitrarily draw a line in the sand and say below this point, you're perfectly mentally healthy, but the tiniest step beyond it and you're a lunatic.

And yet that is what society would have us do. It's an alluring proposition. Most people can look inside themselves and say, I am nothing like that screaming, thrashing creature. That, then, is mentally ill. Therefore, I could not possibly be mentally ill, because I'm nothing like that nut. It's an easy, though logically flawed way of reassuring ourselves that we are sane.

The world is a terrifyingly unpredictable place, so it is understandable that so much of our thought revolves around making ourselves feel safe. I couldn't possibly be crazy, look at that crazy person, I'm nothing like that! That poor nut, they must have been abused as a child; I was never abused, so I don't have to worry about ending up like that. What a shame, that person is crazy because his brain is broken somehow; thank goodness I have a healthy brain, I'll never have a mental illness. Being poor and homeless is terrible, lucky for me I work so hard, I couldn't ever end up that way, I'm not lazy. That poor rape victim must have done something to encourage the rapist, poor thing; I'd never do anything to put myself at risk or encourage a predator, so it couldn't possibly happen to me. Look at that kid getting such bad grades; he must be lazy, anyone can learn to be exemplary at anything if they just try hard enough.

These may seem extreme, but there are people who believe each and every word I wrote. It's a coping mechanism for dealing with the fears of our world, rationalizing why it couldn't possibly happen to you.When it comes to the many faces of mental illness, sanism has gone undercover and become a part of the fabric of our culture. Perhaps it's time to shock people awake to the knowledge that unbalanced brain chemistry or faulty wiring isn't an immutable sentence to mental illness, nor is a perfectly healthy brain a guarantee against the same. (aside from the fact that neuropsychiatric research is a field in its infancy, so we're not even sure if "unbalanced brain chemistry" or "faulty wiring" are causal elements in mental illness at all) Abuse is not a required prerequisite for instability, nor will it doom someone to craziness. There is no way of predicting for sure if someone will or will not have some form or level of mental illness. No way at all.

The scary truth is that it could happen to anyone, no matter what you do, no matter what happens to you. The reassuring truth is that for most people, the monster never does more than peak around the closet door or send a tail swishing out from under the bed. Most people never see the monster come charging down on them to devour their lives. And for those who do have to face the monsters which lurk at the edges of our vision, may there always be those who will join them in battle, lend them a sword or protect them with their shield or bind their wounds so they can continue to fight and keep from being devoured. You may call them damn shrinks, mucking around in peoples heads with shoddy guesswork, or you can call them meddling bleeding hearts who won't make people take responsibility for their lives. We call them doctors, teachers, therapists, psychiatrists, priests, councilors, parents, lovers, children, friends. And without them, few of us would be here.

As a wise professor of mine once said, when asked if psychiatric patients should be allowed to become doctors:
"Just about every human being who has walked this earth could've used some psychiatric help at some point. You should be more worried about those that don't get it than those of us that do."


  1. I found your blog yesterday, read through a few entries and followed it. And had a very similar thought to this post. Good post, odd coincidence XD

  2. Thanks Sakaki! I've actually been working on this one for a few months; it's an issue near and dear to my heart, so it's probably spilled over into the rest of my blog. That is an odd coincidence that we've been thinking about the same things, hahah.

    Thanks for following! It means a lot that my writing touches people. :)

  3. Great post. I think sympathy is in order for people with really bad mental issues.
    It could be anybody. It isn't like people choose to have their problems. I have a few people in my family with schizophrenia.

  4. You make a very good point, pocket rockettz - people DON'T choose their problems. It makes it so frustrating that some people insist that you just have to "choose" to get better, like the whole thing is a choice. Who would choose to have an anxiety disorder, or depression, or schizophrenia? Seriously?! *sigh*