In my line of work I’m often asked by people, is this normal? Mostly I’ve tended to suggest that I may not be the best person to ask, and joke that being a therapist can give one a skewed sense of normal. But increasingly, I don’t think it does. I think it gives you a wider view of reality, a view unencumbered by the understandable denial and fear that tends to accompany discussions about “mental illness.” Mark and I talked about this, and what “normal” actually looks like on the Radio Live Sunday morning show this week. (Click here for audio of the interview)
“Normal: noun 1. the usual, typical, or expected state or condition.”
In New Zealand, we have one of the highest rates for anxiety, and one of the highest overall prevalence rates for mental illness in the world, of those surveyed. In the latest national survey, and most reliable statistics, the “Te Rau Hinengaro: The New Zealand Mental Health Survey” from 2006:
- 47% (nearly 1 in 2) New Zealanders will experience a mental illness and/ or an addiction in their lifetime
- At any one time 20.7% (1 in 5) New Zealanders will have experienced a mental illness or an addiction in the last 12 months
- Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness, followed by mood disorders and substance abuse
- The young and those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged are more likely than others to have experienced mental illness in the last 12 months
- Women are more likely to experience anxiety, depression and eating disorders than men
- Men are more likely to experience substance use disorders than women
- Only the USA has higher levels of anxiety disorders than NZ of the 15 countries for whom data is available
- Only the USA, Ukraine and France have higher rates of mood disorders
- Only the USA and Ukraine have higher levels of substance abuse (Click here for a summary)
So what’s normal?
When we look at the big picture, it’s normal for young people to struggle more when it comes to managing their emotions. It’s normal for people in poverty and in sub-standard living conditions to feel miserable and overwhelmed. It’s normal for women to struggle with anxiety and their mood when things get tough, and for men to drink too much or use drugs when life gets on top of them.
But these figures also only capture the “extremes”: those who get diagnosed with a mental illness. What that means that your symptoms must interfere with most, or all, areas of your life. It doesn’t capture those who live with anxiety, who might have bad days and simply carry on, it doesn’t capture what it means to be human and struggle. Because all mental illness, whether it be anxiety, mood disorders, difficulty eating when under pressure or being impulsive in ways that are harmful, is part of being human. In that sense it’s very normal.
But it’s much easier to believe it’s “abnormal” to put “it” over there, and make it different. In a way that’s normal too, it’s just not accurate or helpful.