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Society Isn’t Normalizing Mental Illness. It’s Medicalizing Normalcy

In a recent syndicated column published by Conservative Review, writer Ben Shapiro argues that society needs to stop “mainstreaming” mental illness, challenging the I’m-Okay-You’re-Okay mentality that allows people to engage in deviant or aberrant behavior without censure.

He describes a case in which a woman who enjoyed being led around by her boyfriend on a leash has disappeared, suggesting that the tragedy could have been avoided if she had been given the proper treatment.

But is it true that modern society is increasingly accepting of mental illness as normal behavior? In fact, just the opposite. Many things formerly considered within the bounds of normal human variation are now classified as illnesses and treated as such.


An analysis of the Fourth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) found that, based on its diagnostic criteria, 46.4 percent of Americans will have a “disorder” at some point in their lives.

But because the mind itself is allegedly sick, should people diagnosed with these conditions be robbed of their agency and treated like children at the whim of their doctors, their families, or the state?

The psychiatric profession insists that mental illness is “just like any other illness,” but this is obviously untrue. Bodily illness can be diagnosed objectively from a detectable pathology. The presence of cancerous cells in the brain leads to a diagnosis of brain cancer, even if no symptoms are presenting.

Mental illness, on the other hand, has no such pathology. How could it? The mind is an intangible, unobservable concept. Therefore, mental illnesses must be diagnosed solely based on a subjective interpretation of behavior. The symptom is indistinguishable from the disease itself, meaning that all such diagnoses are opinion-based rather than objective.

And how do we define mental illness anyway?

We’re frequently cautioned against treating delusions as reality, but who is going to serve as the arbiter of what constitutes reality? By this definition, an atheist would be justified in classifying all people of faith as delusional and mentally ill for their belief in a higher power. To an atheist, a believer talking to God is no different than James Stewart talking to a giant rabbit in “Harvey,” and given the chance, he will treat the two equivalently. Is that really a road we want to go down, especially when our political leaders are becoming increasingly secular?

At the core of the question is this: Are we justified in depriving individuals of their freedom, of forcibly hospitalizing (read: imprisoning) and medicating them against their will because they behave in a way that we find odd or difficult to understand?

It’s important to remember that, in the past, Americans were diagnosed as mentally ill for being gay, for engaging in masturbation, and, in the days of slavery, for trying to escape from their masters. Benjamin Rush, the father of American psychiatry, thought the consumption of alcohol and opposition to the American Revolution constituted mental illness. These perfectly normal behaviors were regarded as so aberrant as to justify depriving individuals of their freedoms “for their own good.” And while these specific conditions are no longer recognized as mental illness, far more supposed disorders have arisen to take their place.

Wanting to be led around on a leash is odd, bizarre even, but the claim that such behavior justifies imprisonment and drugging is incomparably more horrific. If any unpopular behavior can be called a sickness, only conformists are safe from oppression. And who wants to be a conformist anyway?

America is supposed to be a country in which minority opinions, beliefs, and behaviors are protected from the tyranny of the majority. Ayn Rand said that the smallest minority is the individual, and I would add to this that the individual with unaccountably odd behavior is smaller still. It’s all well and good to claim such people are irrational, but to that I will respond with two quotes from the great economist Ludwig von Mises.

From “Epistemological problems in Economics”:

The assertion that there is irrational action is always rooted in an evaluation of a scale of values different from our own. Whoever says that irrationality plays a role in human action is merely saying that his fellow men behave in a way that he does not consider correct.

And from “Socialism”:

If a man drinks wine and not water I cannot say he is acting irrationally. At most I can say that in his place I would not do so. But his pursuit of happiness is his own business, not mine.

I’ll leave you with this question: Whom do you trust to decide which behaviors are “correct,” and are you willing to surrender your pursuit of happiness to white-coated experts who claim to know better? (For more from the author of “Society Isn’t Normalizing Mental Illness. It’s Medicalizing Normalcy” please click HERE)

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