Monday, October 18, 2010

Is anxiety a mental illness?

At the end of August, a professor from the University of Arizona contacted me about submitting a "first person account" of anxiety for a new text book he and his colleagues are writing. They've received a number of submissions from people dealing with various forms of mental malaise. I'm getting ready to submit my story, but am still hung up on the books title "First Person Accounts of Mental Illness". It just feels like there's a big difference between an anxiety disorder and, say, paranoid schizophrenia with delusions. My Dad, a clinical psychologist, used to say that anxiety and depression were the common colds of mental health. I tend to agree.

The professor said that he was open to alternate titles for this text. Any ideas? What do you think? Is anxiety a mental illness? And, if not, is there a better description for what we experience?

Hope everyone is enjoying this amazing fall weather!


amy said...

Hi Kristin! I hope you are doing great, haven't "talked" to you in a while ;)

I HATE the "mental illness" tag on anxiety!! I feel like mental illness, like you said, is more like schizophrenia. I am no psychologist and I know they do say anxiety is a form of mental illness, I just disagree.

So awesome that you were asked to contribute to this.

Thank you for the time you take on your blog to be open and honest and help others :)

Miss Wendy said...

Since suffering with anxiety I've tried to research it as much as I can, but there are still so many unanswered questions about it. It seems like it's definition, whether it can be cured, what causes's all up in the air.

When I was first diagnosed with GAD and panic disorder I believed it was a mental illness. I've never thought though that mental illness is anything to be scared of and that it doesn't mean complete mental instability or that you've lost touch with reality. It simply means what it says.....your mind is ill, but just like a cold you can get better.

There are so many mental illnesses out there, and having seen first hand some of my family members deal with the more debilitating ones like schizophrenia, I'm all about taking away the stigma surrounding the tag mental illness. It's nothing to be ashamed of, scared of, or hated.

I've heard anxiety be called a mental illness or a behavior disorder, and I'm actually fine with either label if people so feel the need to label me. If my brain is not functioning properly, if my chemicals are imbalanced, and thus my brain is more or less "ill", then I have no issue with anxiety being called a mental illness.

I would like to take the power away from that word and have people not be so scared of it. I have no idea really what anxiety is or isn't, I just know that as far as labels for it go, I could really care less what people say. If classifying it as a mental illness at all helps those around me realize that not everyone with a mental illness is completely "crazy", then I think that's pretty awesome.

amy said...

Maybe it comes down to an acceptance issue. I struggle with "accepting" and therefore the "mental illness" label bothers me a LOT.

In the end though, I still don't think it should be put in that category.

Ashley said...

What a great question!! I have thought about it all day and have changed my answer several times. There are days when I feel like I have a full blow mental illness and I'll never escape it and then there are days that I feel great (O.K. maybe not great but at least pretty good).
Kristin: I think it's so cool that you were asked to contribute to a book!!! It sounds, to me, like whether they change the name or not...your account is going to be in the same book as someone with paranoid schizophrenia. I cannot come up with a better name if they are wanting accounts from people dealing with various forms of mental malaise (imo...mental malaise sounds better than mental illness). I agree with what Wendy said and think it's a good way to look at it. I think sharing your story will help people (It has definitely helped me and I don't even know your whole story).

When I really think about MY anxiety the description I think best fits ME is...uncontrolled thought life. Everything I deal with stems from terrible thoughts that I get stuck on.

Let us know when the book gets published. I'll read it! :-)

Anxiety Girl said...

Hi everyone,

Thanks for the great feedback!

It's a tough question, isn't it? I lean toward thinking of anxiety/panic as a behavior disorder - more about retraining the brain. But, making a submission for this book made me realize how much the mental illness stigma stirred up in me. Very interesting.

Wendy - it's nice to meet you & I especially liked:

"If classifying it as a mental illness at all helps those around me realize that not everyone with a mental illness is completely "crazy", then I think that's pretty awesome."

I do feel like every time I share with someone that I struggle with anxiety and panic, it opens their perception to "who" has mental health issues. It also seems like 50% of the people I know are taking some kind of anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication -- it's just that many of us are very quiet about our internal lives.

Thanks everyone for your thoughts and let me know what else this question stirs up for you.

Meredith said...

Great post Kristen. I agree that the "mentally ill" thing bothers me. I always think that mental illness means losing touch with reality. However, I do think there is a biological component to anxiety as well. Anxiety is just really hard to label in that way. I agree with what Miss Wendy said about trying to lose the stigma behind mental illness. It is sad that if someone has a physical illness they might think nothing of sharing it with others but if you have a form of mental illness you fear peoples reactions and judgement. I know that is something I need to try to work on myself!

Anxiety Girl said...

Hi Meredith -- I think that's just it - the idea that mental illness is losing touch with reality. With anxiety, many of us fear that we'll "lose it" even though anxiety does not actually have that power.

How are you doing these days?

amy said...

Meredith...HI!! How are you feeling?? Been thinking about you :)

I agree with you Kristin about it being more of a behavior disorder. You get stuck in a rut with anxiety, it's like a bad habit you can't break. Bad habits, I would think, are behavioral issues.

I read the other day that Anxiety/Panic "disorder" becomes a "disorder" when you can't break the constant fear of it happening again. Makes sense to me. I don't mind the "disorder" part (I guess), but not the illness part. Mental illness makes it sound like I'm going to be checking in to an institution!

And, I do agree that more people suffer from anxiety and major stress than we know. When I meet people, after getting to know them, I tell them about my experience with anxiety HOPING they will understand. Sometimes I hear crickets and they are staring at me like I'm speaking a different language, but a lot of times they do understand b/c they've experienced it too!!

Anyways, I'm looking forward to hearing more about your contribution Kristin!!

Anxiety Girl said...

Thanks Amy - If it's not too long, I'll share it. I really need to send it in today, but I'm getting hung up on the editing and wanting to change it all around. :)

Re: telling people, I find that it's much easier to write about and so hard to describe in person. I do know that everyone deals with something, though, whether they choose to open up or not. So, I try to think of it as giving someone a gift -- showing our humanity. :)

Anxiety Girl said...

Hi everyone,

I'll be offline for a few days for some family fun, but will check back here at the start of the week! Have a great week/weekend! :)

Anonymous said...

I too think labeling anxiety as a mental illness is very harsh, especially with all the advancements that have been made in pyschological and behavioral therapy and medicine. Even thought anxiety is a Mental Health issue, it doesn't necessarily mean it should be labeled as a Mental Illness. I have anxiety disorder and I've learned to accept that word, "disorder." Do I think I have a mental illness? No.

Decades ago, when nobody knew what anxiety realy was or how to deal with it, those people suffering were considered mentally ill. So yeah, I understand using this tag back then. Now with all the improvements that have been made, it would just seem like a step back to call Anxiety a "Mental Illness" once again.

Somestimes I joke with my close friends saying that I can be "crazy" sometimes with certain things, but that's me putting a humorous spin on my anxiety. Am I mentally ill? No. Just a regular mid twenties girl that has to deal with things differently than others bc that's how I'm wired.

Anxiety/Panic can really suck, but we can't let it win and rule our lives, otherwise, then, it may turn into an illness in a sense.

I love all these comments and reading about others because now I feel less alone! :)

Kaliki said...

I like to think of anxiety as a chemical imbalance in the brain, which is is. Mine is, anyway.

Keith said...

Kristin, I don't like labels either, but have a slightly different take. I think of anxiety as a diagnosis, not a label. I work as a LCSW, and constantly hammer away that a diagnosis or mental illness is a piece, and usually a small piece, of someone's makeup. What makes it seem bigger is how much it can and does worm it's way into many aspects of life. From that perspective, I wonder about the title of this blog--I know you a bit and can think of so many things you are (wonderfully so!) that are not anxiety.
That said, congrats on being approached about the book, and perhaps another title "First Person Accounts of Mental Health" which emphasizes strength rather than struggle. Thanks for your efforts in being so open with all of this!

Anxiety Girl said...

Hey Keith,

I like your title idea! I think it's gone to press already, but I'll forward that along just in case. Yes, strength vs. struggle, especially since struggling with anxiety just makes it grow.

Thanks for your sweet comments. Regarding the blog title, it came from a joke my sister in law & I had about being able to escape anxiety provoking situations in a single bound. Anxiety Girl, as a super hero, as opposed to anxiety as all consuming.

Hope all is well with your sweet family & hope you stop by again soon! :)

Anxiety Girl said...

Welcome Elisha & Kaliki! It really is in how you look at anxiety, isn't it? So glad you all stopped by & would love to hear more about your experiences with anxiety and what's worked for you!

Christy said...

I know I am a year late to the discussion, but I feel so strongly about this that I wanted to second Miss Wendy. I look forward to the day that people are not offended by the label. Mental illness is real and not blamable. There should be no need for shame. When I have a cold, i am not offended if someone says that I am ill. If I have anxiety, why should I be offended by the same statement.

Scrappy Rat said...

I definitely consider OCD to be a mental illness. Science has pretty much concluded that it's passed down genetically, caused by a damaged part of the impulse control section of the brain. I've clearly had OCD since birth (or at least since I first learned to talk.) and it can definitely be traced through my family line. There's also evidence that some acquire OCD via PANDA Syndrome, a secondary effect of a certain strain of strep that attacks part of the brain, damaging it, resulting in OCD (interestingly enough, it's not the same part of the brain that's messed up in those of us born with it, yet it causes the same behavior.

OCD is definitely a mental illness. It's not a learned behavior or a reaction to something in the past (though things like that can exacerbate the symptoms), it's a problem with the brain itself (the "hardware" so to speak, instead of the "software" like a chemical imbalance.) I don't have a problem with the classification of "mentally ill". It's like living with any chronic illness, a constant effort to find a regimen that manages your pain and symptoms despite the lack of a cure.

Frank Foster said...

Wow... I struggled with this for along time.
It made my anxiety compound and I seriously believed I had a serious mental illness.

Getting a medical examination was really a important step for me..

Frank Foster
Queensland, Australia

Laurie said...

I just read your FPA as part of an assignment for my MSW class. I am FLOORED at how similar your account is to my life and so appreciative (did I spell that right?) to you for sharing. It's just good to know that there are other people out there, who are doing good things with their lives despite still struggling with anxiety and panic. Again...thanks!

Anxiety Girl said...

Hi Laurie! Thanks so much for your comment! I'm sorry to hear you've experienced the same kind of anxiety, but glad that my story resonated & gave you hope - you are not alone. Yes, anxiety is such a pain, and the reality is that I still deal with it regularly and have my ups & downs. But I also have a really good life, an awesome family & I work hard at "doing life" without letting anxiety run the show. Take care! I'm not sure where you live in the world, but Reid Wilson leads great weekend workshops in North Carolina & I highly recommend!