Grief and anxiety are not mental illnesses

Are we, as a society, already scared of our own emotions?  and more especially the emotions of others? 
It often seems that there are signs everywhere that  this is so: and that it really ain’t working out too well for us, and less well for the generations that rely on us to show them how.

We are immersed in the frenetic buzz of a culture that generates rising anxious-ness and rising toxicity. No wonder our bodies respond the way they do, and no wonder, in our mindbrainbody we experience that as overwhelming.

We now have a generation of adults mostly convinced that the way only way to handle difficult emotions is to label them with a medical-sounding name and take colourful little pills; then push-on,  schedule more busy-ness; drive around the city as agressively as we can and work longer hours to pay for it.

Sometimes it seems the whole North American continent [and other places that seem in a rush to ape the example] is on the verge of,  or already deeply immersed in, the great  collective amydala hijack.

Our response to this, lest it be seen as our “fault” is to swallow hook, line and sinker the story that its not us but some “chemical imbalance” and that we owe it to ourselves/ society to  correct that by swallowing our daily personal cocktail – and in ever greater numbers – of colourful little pills. 

Well, guess what, some of those pills may make some of us feel better for a while, but there’s a price we pay. We’re left even less able to recognise, understand and learn to deal with the basic causes of what overides our emotions til they scare us.

Some medicines might even make you and your kids more ill. Psychiatric medications are powerful and certainly not benign,  yet as a society we treat them much as if they were cough drops. 

Parents! its time to stop jumping to conclusions that it’s your fault. And in any case isn’t “fault” is such a stoopid unthinking knee-jerk of a game? 

Grief is our mindbodybrain telling us we’ve lost something important and valuable.

Anxiousness is simpy our mindbodybrain telling us that there is something we may need to pay attention to.

It’s how evolution has designed and made us.

The difficulty is that the system inside us cannot distinguish from the threat posed by a sabre tooth tiger, and one posed by someone daring to being so inconsiderate as to deliberately set out to ruin our day by being on the same subway train as us;  or driving  car in front of us in traffic; or standing in front of us at the checkout. 

So,  it’s our job to learn to do that, to intepret what our body is telling us, read and interpret the signals – and to make sense. Yet some of  us grow up in environments that make that dfficult to learn.

“Try to learn not to be so scared of  your emotions

– they are telling you that you’re alive”
Who said this? my GP to me five years ago , and quite a few times since until it began to stick.

I was in a mess, chronically ill in many ways, my brain fried and the pan on fire..

Gradually, and especially after reading Norman Doidge’s excellent book “The Brain That Changes Itself”, I began to find hope in the notion that whatever had changed in the way my brain worked was something that could change again. I simply needed to learn how to help it: and that’s what I set out to do.

I believe we each have a  point beyond which normal emotions can go astray and cause us distress in our lives, and distress in the lives of people around us.  I have been beyond that point  – and it is scary. And when I was there there it sure looked and felt like for me there was no hope. But that was simply not true. And it was only a few people I needed to meet who helped me realise I could find a way, my way, out.

When we are near this  point medicine says we have a “disorder” – but the threshold for what constitutes “disorder” is not medical or scientific: it is mostly societal and cultural.

Thinking of ourslves as “disordered” suggests that we are done for, lost and a hopeless irretrievable “case”: and the best we can do, and indeed our obligation, is to manage our condition. This leads to beliefs that we are likely a hair-triggeraway from being a “danger to ourselves and others”; or simply too expensive and unreliable to employ.

Despite being touted as a solution for “stigma” this approach has actually led to more people feeling excluded by the largely fake-science labels and disorders that have become attached to their lives. Even if we find family and friend who look on us with compassion, or welcome us to the “me too” club – then too often we find ourselves excluded by employers and their insurance providers that have found ways round laws that say it is illegal.

But there is different path open to us back from beyond that point.  In fact there are many paths and it is our own job to find the path that works for us – with however much help we need and can find. 

I would wish for mental health services that were focussed less on supporting people in being sick,  in training people to be good, compliant patients; and more focussed on helping individuals learn to live with whatever distress they experience, and find the path that helps them back to being well.

For the most part most people can learn how to handle even the scariest emotional experiences, including the scariest living nightmares that can occur in psychosis. Some folks need nothing more than information to do that, some need a lot of help and support while they practice; and along the way some [by no means all] find the colourful little pills help them – not as a “cure” but simply help them stay in the saddle. 

There is hope – we simply need to learn as a society how to get a handle on helping each other learn how to live with the infinitely and magnificently variable internal experience of being human beings.

I think Dr Peter Kinderman, and my own GP both have it about right – anxiety and grief are not themselves “mental illness”, they are simply telling us we are alive. Maybe rather than spend so much time and money diagnosing what is wrong with each other  we  simply need to pay more attention to learning how to be less afraid of living.


Article on last week by Dr Peter Kinderman,  Professor of Clinical Psychology and head of Institute of Psychology, Health and Society at the University of Liverpool, UK.

17 January 2013 Last updated at 22:01 ET

By Peter Kinderman Professor of Clinical Psychology
An unhappy young woman Everyday anxieties could become targets for The forthcoming edition of an American psychiatric manual will increase the number of people in the general population diagnosed with a mental illness – but what they need is help and understanding, not labels and medication.

Many people experience a profound and long-lasting grieving process following the death of a loved one. Many soldiers returning from conflict suffer from trauma. Many of us are shy and anxious in social situations or unmotivated and pessimistic if we’re unemployed or dislike our jobs.

For a few of us, our experiences of abuse or failure lead us to feel that life is not worth living. We need to recognise these human truths and we need to offer help. But we should not regard these human experiences as symptoms of a mental illness.

Psychiatric diagnoses are not only scientifically invalid, they are harmful too. The language of illness implies that the roots of such emotional distress lie in abnormalities in our brain and biology, usually known as “chemical imbalances”.

This leads us to be blind to the social and psychological causes of distress.

More importantly, we tend to prescribe medical solutions – anti-depressants and anti-psychotic medication – despite significant side-effects and poor evidence of their effectiveness.

“The criteria for “generalised anxiety disorder” would be significantly relaxed, making the worries of everyday life into targets for medical treatment.”

This is wrong. We should not be diagnosing many more people with meaningless “mental illnesses”, telling them these stem from brain abnormalities, and prescribing medication.

Sex addiction

An extremely influential American psychiatric manual used by clinicians and researchers to diagnose and classify mental disorders has been updated for publication in May 2013.

But this latest edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, or DSM-5, will only make a bad situation worse because it will lower many diagnostic thresholds and increase the number of people in the general population seen as having a mental illness.

  • The new diagnosis of “disruptive mood dysregulation disorder” will turn childhood temper tantrums into symptoms of a mental illness
  • Normal grief will become “major depressive disorder”, meaning people will turn to diagnosis and prescription as a response to bereavement
  • The criteria for “generalised anxiety disorder” will be significantly relaxed, making the worries of everyday life into targets for medical treatment
  • Lower diagnostic thresholds will see more diagnoses of “adult attention deficit disorder”, which could lead to widespread prescription of stimulant drugs
  • A wide range of unfortunate human behaviours, the subject of many new year’s resolutions, will become mental illnesses – excessive eating will become “binge eating disorder”, and the category of “behavioural addictions” will widen significantly to include such “disorders” as “internet addiction” and “sex addiction”

Stigma of diagnosis

Standard psychiatric diagnoses are notoriously invalid – they do not correspond to meaningful clusters of symptoms in the real world, despite the obvious importance that they should. Diagnoses fail to predict the effectiveness of particular treatments and they do not map neatly onto biological processes.

In current mental-health systems, diagnosis is often seen as necessary for accessing services. However, it also sets the scene for the misuse and overuse of medical interventions such as anti-psychotic and anti-depressant drugs, which have worrying long-term side-effects.

Scientific evidence strongly suggests distressing experiences result not from “faulty brains”, but from complex interactions between biological, but more importantly, social and psychological factors.

But diagnosis and the language of biological illness obscure the causal role of factors such as abuse, poverty and social deprivation. The result is often further stigma, discrimination and social exclusion.

Therapeutic approach

There are humane and effective alternatives to traditional psychiatric diagnoses.

It is relatively straightforward to generate a simple list of problems that can be reliably and validly defined. There is no reason to assume that these phenomena cluster into diagnostic categories or are the consequences of underlying illnesses.

We can then use medical and psychological science to understand how problems might have originated, and recommend therapeutic solutions.

This approach would yield all the benefits of the current diagnosis-and-treatment approach without its many inadequacies and dangers.

Prof Peter Kinderman is head of the Institute of Psychology, Health and Society at the University of Liverpool

About recoverynetwork:Toronto

We believe people can and do recover from "mental illness" - because we are living it. We believe in the power of supporting each other: learning from and with each other. You are welcome to join us..
This entry was posted in anxiety, Learning, psychosis, The Mad Ones, what's going on? and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Grief and anxiety are not mental illnesses

  1. Laura Borst says:

    While I read here that some “find those colorful little pills help them stay in the saddle”, I think that psychiatric drugs are more about controlling people than helping them. These pills usually make people less able to manage their lives, sometimes because they suppress and slow thinking and to a large degree because most psychiatric drugs suppress the energy people have. They then have less energy to do some of the things they want or need to do. Also, dissident psychiatrist Peter Breggin said that psychiatric drugs cause the brain and the body to adapt to them, precipitating withdrawl reactions in people who try to go off them. These withdrawl reactions are often said to be the “returns” of the “symptoms” of the “mental illnesses” for which the “patients” were prescribed the drugs.


    • Hi Laura
      There is no “usually” – everyone is different, and some people really do find they help and choose to take them.
      I respect their right to choose. How do I know whats right for someone else?

      Truth is nothing works for everyone, and everything only works for some. I’ve taken psych meds so I don’t need to be told what they do thanks – I’ve taken them and found them helpful, to a point. I also only take them when they are helping me.

      Personally I don’t believe the story that they fix anything nor do ai believe that they need to be taken for life.

      Nor are they evil.

      All medications pose a risk. All medications are experimental. All medications are essentially poisons.
      51% of all medications deemed safe have harmful side effects [for some].

      The beneficial effects of taking any medication need to be weighed against the risks, and people need to make their choices.

      There are wise ways to use [at least some] meds – and that includes psych meds.


  2. christinef says:

    Wonderful, thank you, please write a book !!!!!


  3. excellent – excellent


  4. Phew! Really, really good, kh!


Comments are closed.