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By Joe Block 

Around the Block


May 31, 2018

Over the past few years mental health awareness has come to the forefront in the news. It has taken far too long, as the numbers reveal mental illness is far more common than was previously believed.

1 in 5 adults, or 44 million, experiences mental illness in a given year. 1 in 25 adults, or 10 million, experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that affects their ability to function. 1 in 5 adolescents aged 13-18, or 50 million, experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life.

In the past 20 years the American’s With Disabilities Act has come to protect workers through accommodation plans that employers must follow. Although mental illness protection in the workplace are still lacking, Congress has put into law these policies that must be followed.

It is not enough to simply talk about mental health awareness, or even just be aware of it. We need to understand the experience of mental illness in order to help those with it. It goes beyond simple empathy. Merely objectifying mental illness as something someone has, like a cold, is not enough. We need to investigate how as a society the experience of mental illness affects people.

As I entered graduate school to study philosophy, I became increasingly interested in the experience of mental illness. I had grown frustrated with abstract philosophy and wanted to investigate the real experiences of people. I was especially curious about those in society who are marginalized by certain experiences.

Identity politics has become the rage over the past few years (and not without much good being done). However, as it focuses on claiming and reclaiming identities, it has rarely considered the expereince of the mentally ill. Philosopher Michel Foucault, writing in the latter half of the 20th century, did address these issues. Philosopher Edmund Husserl tackled the problem as far back as the early 20th century.

To use Foucault’s terminology, our society has carved out a space for the Abnormal, a category frequently applied to the mentally ill. Not as much a derogatory label, Abnormal highlights the simple fact that the mentally ill are not like most people. The statistics above even show how, even as widespread mental illness is, it is still experienced by a minority.

What makes this categorization problematic is that other people—those who are not Abnormal—define the category and what that individual is like. This means the mentally ill are stripped of their ability to define themselves as unique individuals and are instead defined by the society. This is not something individuals do maliciously. It is something that arises when a society simply follows pre-established norms without critically thinking about them. It is so-called institutionalized thought.

Stripped of their ability to define themselves and their experiences, the mentally ill fall victim to stigma. Much has been said about eliminating the stigma of mental illness. However, awareness and education are not enough to eliminate this stigma. What is required is a shift in understanding how a society categorizes and identifies individuals. This social categorization has horrible consequences, in particular for the mentally ill, who have no control over how they are understood by their larger society.

The other aspect of mental illness that goes unrecognized is the difficulty of the mentally ill in sharing their experiences with others. We read stories from individuals, we recognize prominent individuals revealing their own struggles, but taking ownership of one’s mental illness is only part of the process. An even more important aspect is being able to communicate and share one’s experiences, in order to both seek help and redeem society’s categorization. This is what psychology is about: recognizing the unique experience of mental illness for each individual and addressing it for that person.

The history of psychology reveals to us that this is no easy task. To a certain degree, everyone’s experiences are unique, and it is difficult for another to truly understand their perspective. This is even more difficult for the minority or individuals who are mentally ill. Since they are labeled as abnormal, their experiences aren’t part of the common language of society. How can an individual with mental illness seek help and understanding when there are no words to adequately express those experiences to another?

Things, however, are not as dire as they seem. Therapy does indeed work. The mentally ill are able to receive recognition of their experiences on an individual basis. This process also breaks down the categories applied to the mentally ill by society as a whole. What is most important for us to recognize is that, more than just raising awareness, we need to focus on establishing a connection with others. We must move beyond identities and focus on sharing experiences.


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