The disease metaphor for mental health problems has been around for a long time. It began in the 1940s with Jellinek’s efforts to help people with alcohol addiction. It is seductive and since that time – with the encouragement of the drug industry - it has gained widespread popularity to cover nearly all other manifestations of distress; we have been convinced that these people must be suffering from unknown or unexplained disease processes. This metaphor for human problems, however, comes with much baggage. It scares the rest of us into thinking that problems are beyond our offers of support and help. It leaves out the central role of life circumstances and it diminishes the power of human relationships. We move away, we look at our friends and family members differently; we stop listening. These other human beings suddenly become strangers to us - we stop trusting what we see.
Almost always, these “diseases” are nothing less than very human reactions to the things that cannot be said – the secrets that erode people’s faith in themselves and other people. When a person begins to show signs of distress; start by listening and resist the temptation to turn them into strangers. Other things like professional help may be needed but don’t start by isolating them further. Getting well or deciding to keep going often comes down to having one relationship that the person can count on, no matter what comes.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.