DR MAX PEMBERTON: Is it cool to have depression? No! For too many young people a mental health problem is just the latest must-have accessory
- Dr Max reveals that a teenager told his colleague it was ‘cool’ to have depression
- According to UCAS, students declaring mental health condition soared by 450%
- He said it trivialises mental health and normal emotions are being medicalised
A teenager said to a shocked colleague of mine the other day that it was ‘cool’ to have depression. No, it’s not. It’s absolutely earth-shatteringly horrible.
But this just shows what I have long suspected: Many young people consider it preferable to have ‘clinical depression’ than a dreary life.
Don’t believe me? According to a study from university admission service UCAS, the number of prospective students declaring mental health conditions on their application forms has soared by 450 per cent in the past decade.
This follows several reputable-sounding surveys over the past few years that have suggested about 50 per cent of children are experiencing mental health problems.
According to UCAS, the number of prospective students declaring mental health conditions on their application forms has soared by 450 per cent in the past decade (file image)
Having worked in children’s mental health services, I find that statistic laughable.
Put bluntly, the rise in public understanding around mental health problems has been a double-edged sword.
There’s no doubt it’s encouraged some people to come forward to seek help, but it’s created another phenomenon, which I think the UCAS statistics are reflecting: An increase in referrals from people who actually don’t have a mental illness.
Of course, there are children who really do experience mental health problems – I would say this is a single-figure percentage – but don’t for a minute think that all this ‘awareness’ helps them.
In fact, it actually runs the risk of doing damage. It trivialises and demeans what it’s really like for a child to have a mental health problem.
It belittles the true horror of teenage mental illness. By this, I mean discovering you have early onset schizophrenia, not getting upset at failing GCSE geography.
Yet because of the celebrity factor, with various household names opening up about their ‘battles’, there are many people who are clamouring for a diagnosis – a label – to give a sense of validation to their problems.
Dr Max Pemberton (pictured) said there are many people who are clamouring for a diagnosis – a label – to give a sense of validation to their problems
As a result, normal emotional difficulties that are an inevitable consequence of life are increasingly being portrayed as abnormal and some form of illness. Normal distress and emotions are being medicalised.
Feeling down because your boyfriend dumps you, or your friends go bowling without you, is not a mental illness.
Moping in your bedroom while listening to music and bemoaning the fact that no one understands you is not a mental health problem.
Sometimes, life is upsetting and unpleasant, and it doesn’t go how we want it to.
Sometimes, you feel fat, ugly or unattractive. This is not a psychiatric problem. It’s normal to be upset, angry or down sometimes. It’s normal to cry when you’re upset.
While on the one hand, it’s good to get people talking about how they feel and to challenge the taboo that surrounds mental illness, in reality, it risks wrongly labelling normal feelings as worrying, abnormal and concerning.
It also sets up unrealistic expectations in people’s minds that life should be a bed of roses all the time. We should be talking about the realities of life and tools for being resilient, not making out that there is something wrong with people.
This ‘overdiagnosis’ has affected all areas of mental health, but has been seen most acutely in children’s services.
Colleagues who work in child and adolescent mental health services speak about how they are inundated with referrals not from those patients with the worst symptoms, who urgently need help, but those with mild symptoms but who have parents demanding they are seen.
Of course, it’s a good thing that we have greater understanding and sympathy for those struggling with mental health conditions.
But the increased awareness has not been the panacea we had hoped for. It has, sadly, created just as many problems as it cured.
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