Over the past month, I talked with people affected by mental illnesses. Some of the things I heard I could relate to, others were completely new to me, and gave me an intriguing insight into different perceptions of reality. For some people I talked to, their diagnoses caused a lot of psychological stress, others were less affected by that. For some, receiving a diagnosis provided safety and stability, others were critical of the concept of diagnoses as such. Some identified with their diagnosis, others refused to do so in order not to run in the risk of further victimization. While some had a very positive image of therapy and prescribed medication, others were conflicted, or had a negative attitude due to the experiences they had in this regard.
The consequences of being diagnosed with mental health issues are real, and range from social, and/or financial disadvantages to possibly causing severe long-term damages by misdiagnosing and prescribing the wrong medication. As a sociologist I am keen to find possible explanations for the fact that living with a diagnosis seems to affect some more severely than others. This fact might be the result of intersectional class, race, and gender differences.
More psychologically speaking I argue that how one comes to receive and copes with a psychological diagnosis cannot be predicted in a reductionist manner as the causes for mental health issues are as diverse as the individual forms of treatment. People are not only shaped by structural factors such as those mentioned above, but also by their unique biographies, past experiences, associations, and memories. Plus, the component of a certain genetic predisposition
seems to be a factor that shouldn’t be underestimated when it comes to developing some form of condition causing psychological stress.
What is unquestionable is that a lot needs to improve when it comes to the treatment of people with mental health issues: patients need to be informed much more openly about the side effects of prescribed medication, blood and liver values need to be controlled regularly, and waiting lists to get into psychological or psychiatric care are long which is the result of an underprovision with therapists. Also, the fact that the majority of people I interviewed wanted to remain anonymous hints to the fact that speaking openly about mental health issues is still a taboo. When asked for the reasons why four of my six interview partners didn’t want their names to be published, some said that they were afraid that they would be treated differently by people in their social environment, some feared disadvantages on the job market, and one person even hinted to the fact that they were “embarassed” by their condition. If people would stop scandalizing psychological diagnoses, a lot of pressure would be taken off from those affected.
It should be kept in mind that every form of psychological diagnosis is the result of science made by people. People with financial interests, possible political agendas, people who are the product of their own individual circumstances. I am not saying that to diminish the positive effects that modern-day psychology and psychiatry can have on the life of those affected by some form of mental condition. Rather I would like to draw attention to, and remind some people once more of the fact that science is not an objective, independent system operating in a “social vacuum”. Thus, diagnoses are the outcome of ongoing social discourses by which science is shaped no less than any other part of life.
It was important for me to find a balance between working through the list of specific symptoms as pointed out in diagnostic manuals such as the ICD-10 to have a guiding thread, while not losing a critical stance towards the socially constructed image of scientific unassailability. My method was to give my interview partners as much space as possible to express what was important to them. Although I tried to cover a spectrum of questions which I thought were interesting to the specific diagnosis, my interview partners were free to choose on which part they wanted to place their focus on and which stance they wanted to take.
In case you missed out on something, here are all the interviews I conducted over the past five weeks:
Interview five with Martin and Nadja on Depression.
Interview four with Matthew on Dissociative Identity Disorder.
Interview three with Nicole on Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
Interview two with Anne on Anorexia.
Interview one with John on Schizophrenia.
* Name changed.