Is it a surprise ‘the mentally ill’ feel happiness?

I came across this interesting little snippet of research today: A team of Dutch positive psychologists claim 68.4% of people with ‘mental disorders’ that they studied claimed they “often felt happy” during the previous four weeks.

The link discusses the strengths and weakness of the study but as Ad Bergsma and his team write of their results: “The possibility of coexisting happiness and mental disorders is of clinical relevance… A narrow focus on what goes wrong in the lives of the client and forgetting what goes well, may limit therapeutic results.”

To many it may seem ridiculous that a study that recognises that people with mental health difficulties might also be happy or feel happiness is news. But is it?

We still tend, in public debate at least, to divide the world into those who have mental health difficulties and those that don’t. So there are people, and then there are those people.

A good example of this is the Daily Mail’s coverage of The Centre for Social Justice’s major intervention into the mental health public policy debate ‘Completing the Revolution: Transforming Mental Health and Tackling Poverty’

In the Mail’s article covering the launch ‘Care in the community is ‘a £100bn failure’: Mentally ill patients have been neglected for decades, says Iain Duncan Smith think-tank’ the opening paragraph sets a tone from which the rest of the article does not deviate:

“The controversial ‘care in the community’ approach to treating the mentally ill has been a £100billion failure, a report warns today.”

It goes on to insert a ‘same old, same old’ couple of paragraphs about violent mad people while acknowledging that the report it is covering refutes the high profile linkage of mental health and violence:

“But the big push came in the 1980s with the introduction of new laws giving mentally ill people more rights.

The policy has been blamed for allowing dangerous mental patients to roam the streets, and there have been high-profile killings involving care in the community patients.

But the study claims that the link between mental illness and violence is ‘vastly exaggerated’ and suggests that doctors are too quick to detain people unnecessarily or to put them on powerful ‘mind-numbing’ drugs.”

There’s a ‘those dangerous people over there’ attitude in evidence in the Mail piece that has its obvious results in outdated stigmatising ideas and prejudiced behaviour but there is also a much more subtle process of transformation at work in the way that the article is constructed.

Read as a whole, the piece (and many of the reader comments that follow it) position mental ill health as a country that you enter with no passport home. You cease to be a person with hopes, dreams, fears, relationships and achievements and become one of ‘the mentally ill’, a member of a strange and threatening tribe with incomprehensible practices and motivations who must be measured and discussed using arcane mechanisms and ideas. You become a problem that is dealt with by policy means.

It can be easy to forget the way that mental health difficulty is often perceived in public debate is there are passing mental health difficulties that people get over (like a kind of mental flu), the ones that people bravely battle through to arrive pretty much in one piece and back where they started, and the serious ones that completely change people and from which they never return. Neither of these cultural ideas really fit the actuality of mental health difficulty or have shifted very much from where they were when we had asylums and people desperately hid their difficulties under a blanket of shame.

The reality is that many mental health difficulties are disabilities. They’re things that get in the way of doing things that you want or need to do. Very often the challenges that you face as a person with mental health difficulties are as much social as they are medical. The things that you experience because of your mental health difficulty disable you in a world that is set up for people who do not experience the same. Something that would take a little adaptation or a tiny tweak can be the difference between having a fulfilling life and finding yourself excluded. You’re a person doing their best to play the hand that you’ve been dealt and trying to find the best way of getting from where you are to where you want to go. You might do things you enjoy on the way, or find things that you value. You might even have a laugh.

The ‘mentally ill’ of public debate don’t have those qualities. They can either be cured or are incurable. They sort of just hang about either causing trouble or needing to be looked after. They’re public discourse relatives of ‘the poor’, ‘the homeless’ and ‘the disabled’. They fill a rhetorical gap when someone needs to say something but doesn’t really have much actual experience of what they’re talking about, or many details to hand.

If you’re thinking of ‘the mentally ill’ you’re not really thinking of people, you’re thinking of a vague, hazy mass of malfunctioning humanity that needs to be somehow maintained or contained.

It’s hard to see human qualities in such ill-defined generalities. Which means a person might well be surprised that individuals in that pile of ‘the mentally ill’ that they’re having such trouble picturing with any clarity might have any feelings at all, never mind feelings of happiness.

Mark Brown is the editor of One in Four magazine.

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