Psychology: The Final Frontier

I have struggled with anxiety and panic disorder for the last six years. It was diagnosed two years ago and, up until that point, neither me nor my family knew about the existence of the disorder. I didn’t even know that what I was experiencing were panic attacks; I thought I had a heart condition, hypoglycaemia, hyperthyroidism or possibly some strange and permanent nausea. Over all that time, not once did I hear anything about anxiety on the radio, at school; anywhere. Even the doctors were determined to check for every possible physical reason for my behaviour before admitting that my symptoms could be psychological. Psychological problems were taboo.

But in the last month, something has changed.

Billboards have started popping up with guidance on where to go if you have anxiety or a similar disorder. Adverts on the radio and TV are suddenly playing several times a day. The last Woman’s Hour I listened to covered anxiety and panic in considerable depth, and there’s even been an article in the Sainsbury’s magazine (I am a sad, sad person) on teens with anxiety disorders.

In short, anxiety appears to have become the New Big Thing. Anxiety sufferers are speaking out.  I’d like to call what’s happening a paradigm shift, even though it’s more like clever advertising. Whatever it is, it’s great.

Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s enough. While it’s really amazing that people are working so hard to put disorders like anxiety and OCD into the public eye and so many are trying their best to keep them stigma-free, we’re still working from the outside in. As my Extended Project into horses’ hooves showed me, you cannot fix a problem from the outside. Hooves can only get healthy from the inside out. Makeup doesn’t get rid of acne. The stigma of mental illness will not go away until the perceptions surrounding mental illness are fundamentally changed.

Psychology is often seen as a social science; something that doesn’t belong with the real, hardcore medical sciences. As sciences go, it’s a young one, having evolved into it’s current state around the late 19th century. It doesn’t exactly have a lot going for it; practitioners are often seen as ‘wishy-washy’ or unnecessary. Take, for example, what happens if you search ‘doctor’, ‘surgeon’, ‘vet’ and ‘psychiatrist’ in Google Images. ‘Doctor’ calls up multiple images of white-coated, be-stethoscoped, reassuringly cheerful people. ‘Surgeon’ is scrubs-wearing, masked, serious people. ‘Vet’ calls up smiling people wearing scrubs and holding stethoscopes while cuddling various animals.

‘Psychiatrist’ brings up cartoons featuring vaguely amusing variations on the ‘standard’ questions asked in a psychiatric assessment.

I think what separates Psychology from the rest of the sciences is that it deals with abstract concepts. Psychology is ‘the study of the mind’. Unfortunately, no one knows where the human mind is. It could be located in the gallbladder for all we know; it is not a physical entity. Biologists focus on the physical aspects of organisms: the majority of Biology can be seen. Chemists, regardless of how small the things they are working with, are still working with actual objects. Physicists are looking at constants, even if they’re not always visible. Psychologists, however, have no standard to work with. The most up-to-date Psychological theories are still just that: theories. They can never be conclusively proven and we subscribe to them because they have not yet been disproved.

Whereas Biologists can grow as many cells and body parts as they possibly can and have a plethora of small animals to test their theories on before taking it to the human population, Psychologists cannot grow a human mind. At the moment, and for the foreseeable future, it’s impossible. And for some reason nobody is particularly keen to breed a wave of humans to be grown in controlled conditions and studied.

Science is supposed to be objective; free from all bias. It’s incredibly hard to be free from bias when you’re using your own head as the laboratory. There aren’t many people frantic to have parts of their brains poked to see what happens. Psychologists do a lot of their experiments on rats, pigeons and monkeys, which answers quite a lot of the basic questions but doesn’t really help when we need to understand the most complex parts of our brains.

A lot of the most informative studies were conducted decades ago. We can’t repeat them because the ethical committees in charge of such decisions would decide that the potential harm to participants would be too great. And they would: Milgram’s study of obedience caused epileptic fits, shock and nausea, among other symptoms, and the participants weren’t even the ones being ‘electrocuted’. Zimbardo’s study into prisoner-guard mentality was cut short after just six days, in which time the participants (all completely mentally sound) had begun to inflict severe psychological torture on each other.

Clearly, there are much darker sides to humanity that we can’t adequately test because of the ethical limitations. But this post isn’t about the hidden psychopath in all of us. It’s about the attitudes towards the science of the mind that are still limiting how people see those with mental illness, despite how advanced and tolerant our society has become. Mental illness frightens us far more than physical illness. Perhaps it’s because it’s out of our control. With a broken leg, you can heal it. You can see the problem and you fix it. With cancer, there’s cells that aren’t supposed to be there and so you fight them.

How the hell are you supposed to fight your own mind? We can’t see where these problems come from. We don’t know why some people react so much worse to trauma than others. We don’t even know how the medication we give to treat mental illness works! All we know is that what works for one person makes another one worse. Something that blocks dopamine receptors in the brain can have one effect on one person and completely the opposite on another.

We’re scared of the unknown. We’re scared of what we can’t physically handle and so we resist it. We push it right to the edge of society and pretend it doesn’t really exist. Until now. I always used to be scared of telling people that I had anxiety. I thought I’d be seen as some sort of freak who could go berserk at any time. Even worse, I thought people would see me as weak, as somehow lesser than ‘normal’ people because I couldn’t always control what I thought and how I dealt with stress.

Over the last few years I’ve discovered that countless people I thought were completely normal and free from the kind of struggles I was having were actually experiencing similar problems. Some of them were worse than me. Some of them still are. What was driven home to me was that actually, mental problems are the norm. I’m not saying everyone is insane. I’m saying that there is no ‘normal’; everyone has their own internal struggles and it’s the fact that we don’t talk about it that makes so many of us feel like outsiders.

I used the phrase ‘mental problems’ in the last paragraph. Perhaps reading that made you a little uncomfortable? Perhaps you didn’t like the idea that mental illness is so common? That’s stigma working it’s magic again. How about ‘health problems’? “Health problems of all kinds and severity are very frequent, from the common cold to HIV to cancer”. Does that sound better than “Mental problems of all kinds and severity are very frequent, from anxiety to PTSD to schizophrenia”? They’re no different, really. Nobody chooses to have a mental illness, just like nobody chooses to have the flu.

Most of the people I’ve told about my problems have been incredibly understanding. They haven’t treated me any differently and it hasn’t affected how we interact. Other people I’ve told, and there have been a few, have called me ‘insane’, ‘unstable’, ‘weird’. They’ve laughed at me and actively avoided me. But the truth is that everyone has experienced mental abnormality of some kind. Have you ever stayed in for a week to study for an exam and not showered for a few days? That’s an example of abnormal behaviour (Deviation From Social Norms, to be precise). Have you ever not been able to eat because you’ve been worried about something. Abnormal (Failure to Function Adequately).

Before we pat ourselves on the back for actively ‘accepting’ people with mental disorders, we should remember that we’re all a little bit insane.


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