Thursday, November 4, 2010

How Prevalent is Mental Illness?

The surprising (and brief) hospitalization this week of a dear friend suffering from a mental moment makes me wonder just how prevalent "mental illness" - that most stigmatized of disease entities - really is.  I am currently re-reading one of my favorite tomes, A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright.  He persuasively makes the case that "the big changes since we left the cave have all been cultural, not physical", and that "our modern subspecies, Homo sapiens sapiens, is between ten and twenty times older than the oldest civilization", ie. we are a species with a caveman brain living in an ultra-modern invention called civilization - an invention 3000 years old at most!  Of course the prevalence of mental illness depends on how you define it and then how you survey it.  We're not applying for any grant money here so we don't need to quibble about either unnecessarily.  (Okay, mental illness is defined by the National Institute of Health as "a health condition that changes a person's thinking, feelings, or behavior (or all three), causing distress and functional difficulty".)  A generalization like that means that not all mental illnesses are recognized as psychiatric illnesses, but that does not diminish their relevance to those suffering from them.  Given all this, it's not at all surprising to me that we are all under mental duress more of the time than we would like to admit - and that a substantial number of us succumb to mental unsteadiness to some extent at some point in our lives.  (Jimmy Buffett's famous lyric, "if we weren't all crazy we would go insane" seems prescient in that regard.)  I'm sure that our friend is feeling very embarrassed by the whole episode, but she needn't - she just had a touch of the crazies, which as it turns out - is perfectly human.