We’ve come to pathologize emotional pain and human distress. That’s to say, we’ve come to medicalise it – give it labels that make it into a medical problem. And of course this serves a purpose in our society and our systems; I personally am hugely grateful for my mental health diagnoses because they help me understand myself and how I view the world. But the term ‘pathologizing’ goes beyond just medicalising emotions. It defines the problem that ensues from medicalising our emotions.
According to the Cambridge dictionary, pathologizing means: ‘the act of unfairly or wrongly considering something or someone as the problem, especially a medical problem’. This is something we see in mental health spaces all the time, with very little awareness of it. The way we discuss mental illness is so often through an individual lens. We ignore how the modern world’s expectations affect what we see as disordered – for example a huge criteria for mental illness diagnosis is a lack of productivity. But productivity is defined by societal norms and expectations. We label someone as depressed, saying they have a chemical imbalance while ignoring the fact that they are living in poverty and perhaps if they weren’t their mental health would look very different. At best we say that these external factors are simply contributors and not an essential part of our human experience; we ignore how we define was is disordered or not entirely.
There’s a million problems with this. It prevents us from trying to build a better world in a more informed way. It isolates sufferers and prevents them from getting the kind of care – like housing, community, less workload – that they actually need. I could go on and on about this (and I do quite often!) but today I want to answer the question – why do we do this?
Well pathologization stems in many ways from medicalisation. I think there’s benefits and issues within this itself, but it’s understandable why we do this. By giving clear criteria for diagnosis in a medical format it would seem we can more easily start a larger number of people getting treatment. Unfortunately this isn’t the case, but in theory this would seem to make that easier. It also allows us to have some kind of framework to understand ourselves and more easily find others who may have a similar experience – it has certainly helped me with this! And in theory it would help others have a doorway to understanding people with a mental illness by looking at it through a medical lens, so they would know how to start approaching the problem. Furthermore it also gives a structure for how we can syphon off funding for mental health care by making it a wholly medical service. All logical and on the surface optimistic reasons to medicalise emotional pain.
But soon we see the problems come in such as trying to ‘fix’ people to medical standards too rather than to their own standards. We start seeing people as the medical problems rather than as people with diverse experiences. We try to fit people into one route for fixing the issue because that’s easier. Medical problems need medical solutions right? Medication and hospitalisation rather than community and economic support. We see them as scores and issues. And soon we are pathologizing them. The individuals become the problem they present with, and when the one-size-fits-all treatment doesn’t work, we assume it must be the individual’s fault.
Maybe it’s just a natural progression from medicalisation then? But maybe it’s also a symptom of the way our western society functions as a whole. We are not exactly encouraged to see ourselves in the context of the world around us. We’re told we are individuals and isolated in many ways – so it would make sense that we see our problems as individual problems that need isolated solutions. So simply because of the way we have learned to exist in the world we don’t think to see our emotional distress as interconnected.
Then of course, as already mentioned, we live in a society driven by productivity at ever increasing speeds. We have an intolerance for difference, for people who need different support or cannot fit themselves into the world’s expectations of them. So we need to label them as disordered rather than face the idea that the way the systems are running isn’t working. It negates society’s responsibility to change and accommodate. But the thing is as the world gets faster, the economy gets worse, pressures get bigger, more and more people are finding themselves with mental health issues. Do you really think this is a coincidence? The world is becoming more and more incompatible with human rhythms of nature, so more people are finding themselves in distress. But also if the expectations shift to demand more of us or different things from us, then whatever behaviour doesn’t fit those expectations ends up being labelled as disordered.
And maybe it’s fear – we don’t want to face that we share emotions with someone with schizophrenia or bipolar. We don’t want to admit we relate to an autistic person, or can kind of see the sense in what that psychotic person is saying. We are scared that the difference lives in us too, maybe? And again – we have not learnt the skills to be able to conceptualise how others may live differently to us through their perceptions of the world. We have not learnt tolerance, nor we have not learnt to question the status quo – because it would threaten the status quo.
I think we pathologize pain because it’s the easiest thing to do when everything else seems so overwhelming. But we can begin to change this simply by opening ourselves to compassion; opening ourselves to a different narrative. We are all human and we are allowed to have deeply painful, wonderful, beautiful human experiences. That means sobbing our eyes out or seeing shadows no one else can. Feeling does not make us the problem.
Hopefully that made some kind of sense, my little brain ramblings on the internet. Sending so much love and support xxx