Mental illness continues to be one of the most misunderstood, mythologised and controversial of issues. Described for as long as human beings have been able to record thoughts and behaviours, it is at once a medical, social and at times political issue. It can lead to detention against one’s will and has its very own Act of Parliament, and yet we really know very little about it.
Societies through the ages have responded to this mystery by the locking up of people whose sometimes bizarre behaviour was deemed dangerous, unsuitable or just plain scandalous. Only within the relatively recent past have the tall, thick walls of the asylum been dismantled and those who remained institutionalised and hidden allowed out into the community.
Little wonder then that mental health and mental disorder remain misunderstood to most, and frightening to many. Recent reports suggest that stigma is on the decline (Time to Change 2014) but progress has been slow. Despite the best efforts of soap scriptwriters, high-profile celebrities ‘coming clean’ about mental illness, and the work of mental health charities and support groups in demystifying diagnoses such as depression, we still see and hear many examples of discrimination and myth.
Given the sheer ubiquity of mental illness throughout the world, the stigma and mystery is surprising. The most recent national survey confirms the now well-known statistic that just under one in four English adults are experiencing a diagnosable mental disorder at any one time (McManus et al. 2009). Depression is identified by the World Health Organization as the world’s leading cause of years of life lost due to disability (WHO 2009).
Relatively few of those experiencing mental health problems will come to the attention of a GP, let alone a mental health professional. This is especially so in the developing world where initiatives to develop local mental health interventions are gaining considerable ground after generations of cultural stigma and ignorance (WHO 2009). But even in parts of the world where people have ready access to medical help, many suffer alone rather than face the apparent shame of experiencing mental health problems.
Perhaps part of our reluctance to accept mental illness lies with difficulties determining mental health. We are made aware of factors that determine positive mental health. Connecting with people, being active, learning new things, acts of altruism and being aware of oneself (NHS 2014) have been evidenced as ways of promoting our well-being, but mental order remains rather more loosely defined than mental disorder.
So what are the systems used to categorise and define mental illness? In the United Kingdom, mental health professionals often refer to an ICD-10 diagnosis to refer to a patient’s condition. This is the World Health Organization’s (WHO) diagnostic manual, which lists all recognised (by WHO at least) diseases and disorders, including the category ‘mental and behavioural disorders’ (WHO 1992). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (better known as DSM-5) is more often used in the United States and elsewhere in the world (American Psychiatric Association 2013). These two sets of standards are intended to provide global standards for the recognition of mental health problems for both day-to-day clinical practice and clinical researchers, although the tools used by the latter group to measure symptoms often vary from place to place and can interfere with the ‘validity’ of results, or in other words the ability of one set of results to be compared with those from a different research team.
ICD-10 ‘mental and behavioural disorders’ lists 99 different types of mental health problem, each of which is further sub-divided into a variety of more precise diagnoses, ranging from the relatively common and well known (such as depression or schizophrenia) to more obscure diagnoses such as ‘specific developmental disorders of scholastic skills’.
The idea of using classification systems and labels to describe the highly complex vagaries of the human mind often meets with fierce resistance in mental health circles. The ‘medical model’ of psychiatry – diagnosis, prognosis and treatment – is essentially a means of applying the same scientific principles to the study and treatment of the mind as physical medicine applies to diseases of the body. An X-ray of the mind is impossible, a blood test will reveal nothing about how a person feels, and fitting a collection of psychiatric symptoms into a precise diagnostic category does not always yield a consistent result.
In psychiatry, symptoms often overlap with one another. For example, a person with obsessive compulsive disorder may believe that if they do not switch the lights on and off a certain number of times and in a particular order then a disaster will befall them. To most, this would appear a bizarre belief, to the extent that the inexperienced practitioner may label that person as ‘delusional’ or ‘psychotic’. Similarly, a person in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease may often experience many of the ‘textbook’ features of clinical depression, such as low mood, poor motivation and disturbed sleep. In fact, given the tragic and predictable consequences of dementia it is unsurprising that sufferers often require treatment for depression, particularly while they retain the awareness to know that they are suffering from a degenerative condition with little or no improvement likely.
Psychiatry may often be a less-than-precise science, but the various diagnostic terms are commonplace in health and social care and have at least some descriptive power, although it is also important to remember that patients or clients may experience a complex array of feelings, experiences or ‘symptoms’ that may vary widely with the individual over time and from situation to situation.
Defining what is (or what is not) a mental health problem is really a matter of degrees. Nobody could be described as having ‘good’ mental health every minute of every day. Any football supporter will report the highs and lows encountered on an average Saturday afternoon, and can easily remember the euphoria of an important win or the despondency felt when their team is thrashed six-nil on a cold, wet Tuesday evening. But this could hardly be described as a ‘mental health problem’, and for all but the most ardent supporters their mood will have lifted within a short space of time.
However, the same person faced with redundancy, illness or the loss of a close family member might encounter something more akin to a ‘problem’. They may experience, for example, anger, low mood, tearfulness, sleep difficulties and loss of appetite. This is a quite normal reaction to stressful life events, although the nature and degree of reaction is of course dependent on a number of factors, such as the individual’s personality, the circumstances of the loss and the support available from those around them at the time. In most circumstances the bereaved person will recover after a period of time and will return to a normal way of life without the need for medical intervention of any kind. On the other hand, many people will experience mental health problems serious enough to warrant a visit to their GP.
The majority of people with mental health problems are successfully assessed and treated by GPs and other primary care professionals, such as counsellors. The Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme is a now well-established approach to treating mental health problems in the community. GPs can make an IAPT referral for depressed and/or anxious patients who have debilitating mental health issues but who don’t require more specialised input from a psychiatrist or community mental health nurse. Most people receiving help for psychological problems will normally be able to carry on a reasonably normal lifestyle either during treatment or following a period of recovery. A small proportion of more severe mental health issues will necessitate referral to a Community Mental Health Team (CMHT), with a smaller still group of patients needing in-patient admission or detention under the Mental Health Act.
Mental health is a continuum at the far end of which lies what professionals refer to as severe and enduring mental illness. This is a poorly defined category, but can be said to include those who suffer from severely debilitating disorders that drastically reduce their quality of life and that may necessitate long-term support from family, carers, community care providers, supported housing agencies and charities. The severe and enduring mentally ill will usually have diagnoses of severe depression or psychotic illness, and will in most cases have some degree of contact with mental health professionals.