More and more people are being diagnosed with mental illnesses these days. At least that’t the way it appears. Depression, which I suffer from a little, is rife and almost everyone knows someone who suffers from depression or suffers it themselves.
Schools now have special teachers or teachers’ aides to assist in the management of children with autism and other similar conditions. Sometimes these children cause significant disruption in classrooms and measures to handle this are almost always put into place.
It is unclear whether or not there is a real rise in these conditions. It may be that better diagnosis of these conditions is the cause of the upwards trend in the number of diagnoses of these conditions. Certainly I don’t recall there being a lot of mentally ill people when I was growing up. There were always people who were “different” in some ways, and as a result were often teased or tormented by others of the same age. Hopefully that at least we have left behind us.
It’s in the lesser mental ailments that I think that we have seen more diagnosis and consequent steep rise. For instance, one hears of the “autism spectrum”. I had erroneously assumed that everyone was on the autism spectrum somewhere with most being on the very low end and that those diagnosed with “autism” were located higher up the spectrum. Reading a few items on the Internet seems to prove me wrong and that there are people on the spectrum and people who aren’t.
When I was young everyone knew of someone whose mother always smelled of alcohol and who had perhaps crashed a car while drunk. Alcoholism was not mentioned as such, so I’m unsure if such a thing was recognised in those days. Alcoholics Anonymous was started in 1935, and I certainly heard of them at some stage when growing up.
Also most families had a creepy uncle who was kept away from the young girls and boys of the family. These days we have “online grooming” and paedophile registers. When I was young scandals were usually dealt with in the family, and steps were taken to avoid situations occurring that led to the scandal. Unfortunately this meant that the scandal was hidden and the victims were often made to feel guilty, when it was not their fault in any way.
With online grooming, the guilty person can be a complete stranger to the child, and this opens a whole new can of worms. Do parents severely restrict a child’s online access and police them every minute that they are online, or do they educate the children about the dangers? Obviously they need to do both. The first strategy mitigates the danger and the second prepares the child for those occasions when the first strategy fails.
When I was young, there was an occasional person who we learnt to avoid. The man on the corner with the fierce dog. The crazy cat lady who constantly talked to herself. The compulsive hoarder who built up a pile of junk in their front yard. These people are still with us, but now they have their own television programmes! They’ve always been with us, and likely always will. They are much more noticeable these days because the television programmes, but I suspect that there aren’t any more of them than there used to be.
I recall one old lady who lived alone. I think that she would, these days, be diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease or similar. She would wander the streets in her nightie and her robe and have to be taken back home by someone, usually a neighbour or the police. Now and then one of these confused older people would wander off and get lost sparking full scale searches. This still happens today and sadly, not all such cases are resolved happily.
In some ways the rise of the nuclear family and the relative decline of the extended family may have led to the higher visibility of mental illness in society. The nuclear family, mum, dad, and kids has no room for those who mentally don’t fit in. The extended family however can handle the less mentally stable family members to some extent. Adult children can take turns at looking after granny, or maybe pay for grannies care between them. The cousin who is socially inept or who is slightly autistic can find a niche in an extended family.
This can lead to less visibility of much mental illness as the family is unlikely to mention such problems outside of the family and the ill person may be helped by the familiar and nurturing environment.
Some mental illnesses, however, can’t be handled in this way. The mentally ill person may be violent towards other or to themselves. They may be dangerous to the public, as in the case of the drunk or drugged driver. They may be so out of tune with the world that they need professional help.
In today’s world professional help is often available. In some cases drugs can be effective, as in the case of depression and bipolar disorder. In others there is the possibility of committal to a psychiatric hospital. Such places are generally not nice. The patients are generally gravely ill, and nursers and carers in the hospitals have utmost respect. Often such hospitals are underfunded and can be over crowded. Efforts to make them look better often make then look sad.
In the past, even in some cases in the near past, mental hospitals or asylums were places of horror. The patients often lived in squalor, were strictly restrained and were subjected to horrific “treatments”. Fortunately treatment of mental illnesses has improved significantly over the last hundred years or so. Let’s hope it continues to get better.
Of the two hypotheses as to why the rate of mental illness has increased, I definitely think that the better reporting has been the main cause. That is exacerbated by the reduction in the level at which such problems are reported. Depression would not have considered an illness at one time, for example, and autism is reported more frequently because people are aware of it. I certainly don’t believe that there is more mental illness that when we were young. It’s certainly a lot more visible.