Being normal isn’t normal

A man from Tanzania once told me that he hated radios. I was sitting in my 12th grade English class, startled by the opening phrase of this foreign visitor. Before they had radios, everyone in his village would gather weekly to sing and dance. This was so normal that the weird people were those who refused to sing, not those who belted off-pitch notes. But then radios were introduced to the village by a western philanthropist. Initially, the excitement was unparalleled—hearing Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett’s voices without having to travel to see them was surreal, bigger than life even. But that was exactly the problem. People upheld the studio-produced perfections on the radio as the new “normal,” and anything that fell short became unworthy or wrong. Within two months of getting radios, more than two thirds of the people had stopped singing in the weekly events because of how self-conscious they had grown.

We constantly compare our actions against what’s expected of us by society. When we fall short of those expectations, we feel outcast and try to curb our behaviors to feel like we belong. But what exactly is this norm, and who decides it? According to an article written in The New York Times last March, one in five high school age boys in the United States and 11 percent of school-age children over all have received a medical diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). That’s a 40 percent increase in diagnoses in just ten years. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) notes that “scientists are not sure what causes ADHD, although many studies suggest that genes play a large role.”

ADHD is defined as a “mental disorder” by the NIMH and even as a “mental illness” by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). But what exactly is a mental disorder? People often say it’s an “imbalance of chemicals in the brain.” But what exactly would a proper balance of chemicals be? The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “mental disorder” as “relating to the mind in an unhealthy or abnormal state.” The OED also defines “abnormal” as “deviating from the ordinary type.” But it is insane to assert that one in five school age boys aren’t ordinary in terms of mental health. That reflects a deeply rooted societal misunderstanding of normalcy, not a mental-health epidemic among our youth.

No two people have the same two genes, or by association, brain chemistries. Think about how dangerous it would be if we had the technology to perfectly change and restructure people’s mental states. The American Psychiatric Foundation listed homosexuality as a mental illness until 1974, so to uphold normalcy then, we probably would have restructured everyone’s brains to be heterosexual. Our perceptions of normalcy can be dangerous because they don’t accommodate what we don’t understand.

When we see a man paralyzed from the waste down, we don’t judge him not being able to move his legs. But when we see a woman talking to herself in the train station, we judge her “strange” behavior. We move ourselves away from her and deem her dangerous. Unlike a physical handicap, we can’t see what’s wrong with her, so we don’t register that her behavior is as out of her control as the legs of the paralyzed man.

While ADHD exists as a crippling mental illness, its over-diagnosing and over-treatment reflect our misunderstandings of normalcy and abnormality. Schizophrenia, on the other hand, is not over diagnosed at all; it’s underdiagnosed. Schizophrenia is a damaging brain disease that often causes the individual inflicted to see and hear hallucinations, often leading to extreme paranoia. It’s not that schizophrenia disables people from functioning “normally;” it disables people from being able to function at all. According to the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, 2.4 million Americans are affected by schizophrenia. That ends up being about 8 per-thousand people, meaning statistically about 28 people at Brandeis have schizophrenia.

Interestingly, claims that, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 200,000 people with schizophrenia or manic-depressive (bipolar) disorder are homeless, constituting about one third of America’s homeless population. At any given point, more people with untreated psychological illnesses are on the street than in hospital beds.

Mental illness is scary because it’s unknown to us. We know that it can exist, and we often overcompensate by putting everything—lack of focus, lack of energy, lack of social skills—under this umbrella. People with schizophrenia indisputably need medical attention, but does every eight year old boy who has trouble focusing in class? We need to be compassionate and understanding towards mental illnesses, but not overeager to diagnose every social variant as one.

We are humans. And humans, after all, are normally pretty weird.


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