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Terms of unhappiness in a sick world

By Tanveer Ahmed - posted Monday, 24 September 2007


As a doctor working in mental health and within the public hospital system, I am a regular witness to those living on the bottom rungs of our society. They are the homeless, the drug addicts and those suffering from severe mental illness. More often than not, they are all three at once.

I am struck by their amazing uptake of mental health language. They skilfully weave technical psychiatric language into their reporting of symptoms. As a result, comments such as "I'm pretty sure I'm coming down with a depressive disorder" or "I think I'm developing a personality defect" are not uncommon, even from people with minimal education.

This is in part a reflection of wider society and how the language of human distress has been overtaken by psychological terminology. I hear very few people tell me they are unhappy. They are almost always depressed, even if their life choices or circumstances would be perfectly consistent with them being miserable.

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Increasingly they no longer suggest they feel depressed, but that they are getting depression, in the same way we may catch a cold. The consultation then moves to the awkward dance modern therapists play. I become the healer attempting to cure their condition, pretending somehow their malaise is one of biology and not of meaning. The result is that it can blind them to the possibility their actions may have played a role in their problems.

Barely a week goes by when we don't hear of the crisis in mental health. Rising depression, worsening drug and alcohol problems and a strained social sector make us think that despite our stupendous prosperity, we remain in some kind of existential abyss. It is a symptom of the market society and individualism that our grievances must be turned on to the self.

This is in spite of psychiatry remaining a hazy field, an arena where diagnosis and treatment are poorly correlated and where clinical energies focus on symptom relief. It is reflected further in the tremendous amount written about happiness studies. If being dissatisfied with life is pathological and health is a right, the implication is that happiness is also our birthright.

The use of psychiatric terminology is also more and more colloquial. During the Andrew Johns saga and his eventual secular confession, bipolar disorder was used widely in the press as a synonym for erratic behaviour. The former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett, a tireless campaigner in raising awareness for depression, openly admits he uses the term not in its medical context, but as a synonym for emotional distress.

But just like fashion and baby names, language eventually filters down the social ladder. The dominance of mental health language in projecting our distress is of dubious value when applied to the most disadvantaged groups. Indeed, it may be complicit in helping them to maintain lives of dependence and misery, the sick role curing them only of their autonomy and personal responsibility.

Bureau of Statistics figures from 2005 show about a third of the 700,000 people receiving the disability pension have been diagnosed with a mental illness. This is a critical group because the vast majority are young and otherwise physically able. Many could be in the prime of their lives.

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Forty years ago, fewer than in one in 30 working-age adults relied on welfare payments as the main source of income. The figure today is one in six. In particular, the proportion of the population on the disability support pension has doubled since 1981.

An important player in this debate is the doctor, for they determine if someone meets the criteria for disability. Patients who are on the margin of receiving the pension or Newstart will often ask to receive the pension. The disability pension is more generous than the unemployment benefit and there is little mutual obligation.

The sick role, however, comes with an obligation to seek and comply with treatment. The patient's compliance with treatment is the priority for a doctor. There are many times when giving in to a patient's wishes elsewhere can ensure their compliance with medication. The pension is often one such compromise.

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on September 15, 2007.



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About the Author

Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist, author and local councillor. His first book is a migration memoir called The Exotic Rissole. He is a former SBS journalist, Fairfax columnist and writes for a wide range of local and international publications.
He was elected to Canada Bay Council in 2012. He practises in western Sydney and rural NSW.

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