It’s mental health awareness week. So that’s good. Well, mostly. There are downsides to increased awareness of mental health, it turns out.

You ever met someone who is needlessly cold or even outright rude to those who deign to engage with them? I used to work with someone like that, and eventually one of his superiors had to call him out on it. I was within earshot, and happened to hear his defence, which was something like “It’s just the way I am. I think I’m on the spectrum.”

He didn’t specify which spectrum. Maybe he meant the visible spectrum? He was correct if so, as everyone could “see” that he was a massive A-hole, as our American cousins may put it. However, given the context, he was clearly claiming to be on the autism spectrum. Maybe he was? However, having observed him in various contexts, I’d argue that if he was it was on a more expansive spectrum than usual, one that encompassed “not autistic, just a bit of a dickhead”.

A similar phenomenon is those people who insist on things being neat or precisely arranged, who will straighten your pens or cutlery right in front of you, or go to other socially-awkward lengths to satisfy their desire for right angles, and explain it away with a wry shrug and an admission that they are “a little bit OCD”.

As a lifelong glasses-wearing person, it can be teeth-grindingly annoying when people wear spectacles as an affectation. But to genuine medical conditions as an affectation? That’s actually quite sinister, for several reasons.

Mental health problems aren’t minor tics or affectations

Being diagnosed with a mental health issue is a big deal. Despite countless pundits claiming that people with depression are just “attention seeking”, or selfish, that isn’t the case at all. Depression is often a debilitating condition, as are many other mental health problems.

Autism is a lifelong developmental disorder that impacts on pretty much every facet of your existence. Many argue this isn’t always a bad thing, but then there are an alarming number of parents out there who would seemingly rather risk their child dying from preventable diseases than risk them being autistic. In any case, most would agree that autism is a serious thing, not something on a par with a minor head cold, a poor memory for names.

Same with OCD, obsessive compulsive disorder. True OCD has many, often-debilitating features that put a serious dent in the individuals ability to live a normal life, and these usually have to all be present before someone is diagnosed with the condition. Again, it’s not something that comes and goes, like mild hay fever. Hence my usual response to someone claiming to be “a little bit OCD” is: “That’s nice. I’m a little bit five foot ten.” That’s not how things work.

This is why it’s incredibly irksome to hear people claim such afflictions, but only as and when it’s useful for them to do so. You’re not too selfish to observe social niceties like “manners” but simultaneously too cowardly to admit your flaws and work towards addressing them; no, you’re “on the spectrum”, so can carry on as you are, guilt free. I’m not the first person to point this out, but it’s still valid. If someone claimed to have motor neurone disease that only affected them in their home so they’re entitled to a free stairlift, you’d conclude that they were a disgraceful human being, and rightly so. But claiming serious mental issues to avoid having to obey social norms is fine, apparently?

Emphasising the negatives

In truth, people who say things like “I’m a little bit OCD” clearly often do so with no ill intentions. At this point, citing certain mental health conditions has just become part of everyday language, like “I’m crazy I am” or “It’s bedlam in there”. People say things like this all the time. But just because something is common it doesn’t mean it’s consequence free. Language is important, and changes can and should occur. For instance, people still say “committed” suicide, when it’s not been a crime for nearly 60 years, and the media especially is urged not to use that term.

When you casually invoke a mental health problem to excuse a personality flaw or irritating trait, the only person who really benefits is you. Anyone who hears this excuse just makes unflattering associations, rudeness = autism, fussiness and annoyance = OCD. Should they then later meet someone who does genuinely have these conditions, that person will have to work to overcome this pre-existing negative preconception. Considering that they’re already dealing with their mental health issues which, as has been mentioned, are pretty demanding, that’s an extra burden they don’t really need.

Great strides have been made in broadening the awareness and understanding of mental health, but as the old saying goes, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. An awareness of mental disorders isn’t really much good if it only concerns the aspects that can be used as a cop-out for unpleasant behaviours.

OxyContin pills
Sometimes, there seem to be medications that are solutions in search of a problem. Photograph: Toby Talbot/AP

Unhelpful exploitation

It’s all well and good to say people shouldn’t invoke mental health problems to explain their own quirks and behaviours, but surely the average person doesn’t spontaneously think: “I will blame my flaws on a mental illness”?

In truth, exploiting mental health issues happens all around us, so it’s no wonder people are OK with it. From the media, citing mental illness as the cause for any violent attack where the perpetrator has inconvenient political views/is white, to drug companies and affiliated professionals labelling an ever-expanding range of psychological phenomena, like grief and tantrums, as disorders that need medicating. Lovely, profitable medication.

However it occurs and is perpetuated, invoking mental health to explain unpleasant behaviours is clearly a widespread habit, and even if it is sometimes understandable, it’s not really helpful.

The human brain has plenty of weird traits and properties even when it’s functioning 100% normally. It wants a sense of control, it dislikes uncertainty, it’s warps memories, it shuts out rational arguments, and so much more. Many of these can explain bizarre or unreasonable behaviour in people, so there’s plenty of options that should be considered before you start claiming a clinical diagnosis.

Of course, we may end up with someone arguing that “claiming to have mental health problems in order to excuse irritating behaviour” is a type of clinical disorder. And then the whole thing will just be significantly more confusing.

More of the baffling properties of our brain can be found in Dean Burnett’s book The Idiot Brain.Available in theUK,USand many other countries

Reposted from: https://www.theguardian.com/science/brain-flapping/2017/may/10/downside-increased-mental-health-awareness

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