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5 Reasons Mental Illness Isn't 'Abnormal' (And 'Normal' Doesn't Exist)

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I was recently having a conversation with a friend about mental health and mental illness. In the midst of it, we were talking behavioral aspects of mental illnesses, and a common phrase I hear a lot came up:

“But that kind of stuff isn’t normal.”

I have a particular dislike of the word “normal” for a lot of reasons. I won’t go into all of them, but here are a few:

1. What is normal?

Like, what does “normal” even mean? If you ask three people what they define as “normal,” you’re going to get at least four different answers. “Normal” is such a subjective term; it doesn’t make any sense to try to apply it to other people. What “normal” means to you isn’t necessarily what it means to the person(s) you’re judging about whether they are or not.

2. It’s a box that doesn’t exist.

We all have boxes we like to put ourselves or others in. And to a certain degree, it’s part of human nature. If we can categorize things as “good” or “bad,” it’s easier to keep track of things. Evolutionarily, early humans needed to do this to determine what was “safe” and what was “dangerous” to survive. But nowadays, we’ve created boxes for people that are unnecessary and, in may cases, destructive. “Normal” is one of those imaginary boxes that serves no purpose. What good does it to look at a person who thinks or acts differently than you, and label them as “normal” or “abnormal?” The answer: it doesn’t do any good, it does harm.

3. What isn’t normal?

It’s the opposite of the first question: what do we define as “abnormal?” Again, it’s subjective. Our own lives and experiences define what we see as usual and unusual, what are expected and unexpected thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. If we each have our own definitions, why do we feel the need to label others? And that’s true in more realms than just this one. Why do we need to judge others for the unique experiences they have that we don’t share?

4. It justifies judgment, discrimination and stereotypes.

Let’s assume for a second that there is a concrete idea of what “normal” means. Let’s also take an example (and kind of the point of this article): mental illnesses. This is a very real example as many people see mental illnesses as “abnormal,” despite the fact that a large number of the population experience some kind of mental illness. If people are “abnormal,” that gives us the high ground to look down on those people. People with mental illnesses don’t belong in the “normal” world. They can’t fit in, they can never be in lockstep with the rest of the world, so why bother trying to bring them in? And why not clump them all together, even though there is a wide range of mental illnesses? Why not create general assumptions that can apply to people with anxiety and people with bipolar disorder? See how this gets out of hand really quickly? Separating people because they are “abnormal” only leads to judgments, discrimination and stereotypes.

5. It’s harmful, and can be deadly.

You may think this is a stretch, but hear me out. Mental illnesses can be incredibly difficult to deal with, especially without adequate treatment. The last thing people with mental illnesses need is to be labeled and looked down upon if they already look down on themselves. It can make the struggle much more real and tangible. It can only reinforce the mentalities people with mental illnesses may have inside. But how can it be deadly? Suicidal ideation is something many people struggle with, and deaths by suicide needs to be addressed more in our society. If we go around and say, “Oh, you have a mental illness, that’s so weird. You’re not normal,” that can either plant the seeds for suicidal ideation, or it can just encourage the mentality. If we continue to look down on people with suicidal ideation, we may only be making the situation worse.

Overall, I don’t like the word “normal,” if you couldn’t already tell. Besides the consequences it produces, it simply doesn’t exist. Many people are content just saying, “well what’s normal to me isn’t normal to you.” But do you see how that is exactly the problem? We’re judging people for their experiences because you’re saying they aren’t “normal” in your eyes. We can’t stop at recognizing that everyone has an idea of “normal” in their heads. We need to eradicate the idea of “normal” in the first place. Rather, we need to adopt a simple mentality: I have my own experiences, and you have yours. That’s it; that’s all it is. We recognize that we are not everyone, that we have not lived every life ever lived. We need to continue walking our own journey. And sometimes, that means walking alongside others in their own. We can hold their hands and support them on their journey, but we don’t need to say “mine is more important” or “mine is the one you should be on.” Do not accept the idea of “normal.” It doesn’t exist, and believing it does can only lead to harm.

Photo by Thien Dang on Unsplash

Originally published: July 20, 2020
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