The first ever surgeon general’s report on mental health was released at the end of 1999.  The 487-page report says that approximately 50 million Americans struggle with different types of mental illness, including depression, phobias, and eating disorders.   Then-Surgeon General David Satcher acknowledged that many people with mental illness do not receive treatment because of stigma and the cost of proper treatment.  (Counseling Today, November, 2012, page 4)  As a result they suffer needlessly.

bigstock-Mental-illness-in-word-collage-072313I would like to make a distinction that I think could eliminate the stigma and result in millions of people quickly and easily improving the quality of their lives.  Let me explain how.

Specific mental illnesses are usually defined as having the specific symptoms that are spelled out in great detail in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).  Published by the American Psychiatric Association, the DSM provides a common language and standard criteria for the classification of mental disorders.

Thus if you have the symptoms for social anxiety or phobias as described by the DSM, you are considered to have those mental disorders and require anxiety treatment.  Many people, however, who have symptoms listed in the DSM don’t want to be characterized as having a “mental disorder.”  So they resist the idea of treatment, especially from a psychotherapist, one of those people who is known to treat clients with “mental disorders.”

If you don’t have a mental disorder, what do you have?

Here’s another way to look at this issue: the source of virtually everything we do and feel is beliefs and conditioning.  Obviously some behavioral and emotional “problems” result in more day-to-day distress and suffering than others.  For example, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression have a greater effect on your day-to-day functioning than ADD (attention deficit disorder) or dyslexia.

But the ultimate source of virtually everything we do and feel, regardless of how much suffering is involved, is still beliefs and conditioning. (Obviously there are severe conditions like schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder where one’s ability to function is severely impaired.  These conditions are usually called psychosis.  Drugs and psychotherapy are usually required to alleviate the symptoms for these and other similar conditions.)

Moreover, the beliefs and conditionings that impair our quality of life, for the most part, were formed during interactions with parents before we reached the age of six or seven.  (See an earlier blog post that explains this point:

These facts about the power of beliefs and their source lead us to three very important conclusions.

First, almost all of us have many of the same beliefs and conditionings. Typical beliefs include I’m not good enough, I’m not important, and mistakes and failure are bad.  Typical conditionings include experiencing fear whenever we are criticized or anger whenever we are told what to do.  Some of us have behavioral and emotional symptoms that lead to more suffering than others of us, but the essential source is the same for everyone.

Second, obviously anything that impairs the quality of our lives is worth getting rid of.  The greater the impediment the more motivation you probably have to get rid of the source of that impediment.  Many man experience approach anxiety and are afraid of initiating contact with women.  This can make one aspect of men’s lives more difficult.  But in no case are you “mentally ill.”  A fear of public speaking can be debilitating and affect our ability to function effectively, but it is ludicrous to call someone with that fear (an estimated three-quarter of the U.S. population, “mentally ill.”

Third, the source of these beliefs and conditionings is the meaning we gave to early interactions with our parents.  Our parents did the best they could given their own negative beliefs and lack of parenting skills.  We came up with meanings that virtually every child our age came up with.  So no one is really “at fault.”

To summarize:  That we formed a lot of beliefs that led us to exhibit behaviors and conditionings that cause us to suffer does not mean that we did anything wrong, that we “caused” our suffering, or that we should be set apart from others by describing us as having a “mental illness.”

As I’ve written before, much of what seems to be human nature—such as a fear of failure, a concern with what others think of us, a fear of public speaking, and procrastination—can all be easily eliminated by getting rid of the small number of beliefs and conditionings that cause them.  They are not “mental illnesses.”  They are merely behaviors and feelings that result from beliefs almost all of us inevitably form in childhood.

Eliminate the distinction called “mental illness”

If everyone could really get that, the “stigma” of mental illness would disappear because the distinction called “mental illness” or “mental disorder” would disappear.  (As I pointed out above, I am excluding serious problems that are sometimes called psychosis.) That, in turn, would open the door to quick and effective treatment for millions of people.

An article in the New York Times on December 22, 2012, “Walking the Tightrope on Mental Health,” pointed out: “26% of adults experience a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year, and six percent of all adults experience a seriously debilitating mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.  Twenty-one percent of teenagers experience a severe emotional disturbance between the ages of 13 and 18.”

A quarter of the adults in the U.S. might be more amenable to help if they were told they just needed to eliminate a few negative beliefs they formed in childhood just like almost everyone else in the world and we didn’t say we needed to treat their “diagnosable mental disorder” or “severe emotional disturbance.”


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