Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Psychological Disturbance - Part of Our Shared Human Condition

Broadcast journalist and weather presenter Reham Khan (well-known to BBC viewers and listeners in the south of England) occasionally likes to present her friends, acquaintances and aficionados with interesting intellectual challenges. She recently posed the question, ‘Using drugs for entertainment or relaxation is a sign of a psychologically disturbed individual. Do you agree?’ She did, of course, receive a number of responses of various flavours.  Though I am not professionally or personally qualified to answer her question, I made an attempt anyway!

What interests me, though, is that Reham’s question taps into a whole range of assumptions. Her question has certainly made me aware of some of mine. Without thinking about it, I interpreted the term ‘psychologically disturbed’ in a negative light. I saw it as pejorative. To me, then, the question appeared to be asking whether recreational drug use was equated with some sort of personal moral shortcoming. Needless to say, Reham was not suggesting any such thing.

It was only after I pondered the question again later that I realised my mistake. I had interpreted the expression ‘psychologically disturbed’ in a judgemental way. In my defence, however, I would like to say that I don’t think I’m alone in making this error. There is a very long social history of seeing psychological disturbance (however it is defined) in negative terms. Sufferers of its more problematic manifestations have often been placed in institutions as ‘punishment’ for their conditions, or they have received other forms of apparently punitive attention.

What is especially disturbing today (psychologically or otherwise) is the quality of public discourse on the subject of these conditions. This has been prompted by current economic considerations. In the UK, where governmental agencies are seeking ways to reduce the cost of welfare, people with psychological disorders (and physical disorders) are finding that their claims for financial support are now being rejected. Where medical professionals used to assess the validity (or otherwise) of such claims, lower-paid administrative staff are now making the required judgements. If a claimant doesn’t use the exact words or phrases on the administrator’s check-list, his or her claim is rejected.

Rejection is a consequence of judgement. For some people who have to live with very challenging conditions, the rejection of a claim for benefits can read like moral disapproval. In such cases, not only is psychological disturbance equated with failure, it isn’t even seen as a worthy failure. And this feeds into the perception given by the popular press, and adopted by some members of the public, that the psychologically disturbed are shirkers who want to get something for nothing (even where they happen to be economically active, but need their incomes supplemented due to special needs).

I am not suggesting that this is actually happening, but given the current public discourse surrounding psychological and mental health problems, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if some people did indeed turn to recreational drugs for entertainment or relaxation – after all, it’s not as though they would be judged any more harshly.

Words are weapons, and I would suggest we need to change the words we use and the way we use them. The bigger challenge, though, is to change our attitudes. Psychological disturbance is not immoral, but it is very common. Let’s start treating it as part of our shared human condition, rather than as something to be condemned.

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On another note, it is now one year since my book Delivered Unto Lions was published in paperback. In celebration of this one-year anniversary, a new eBook edition is about to be published. More details on that to come. In the meantime, if you are a new visitor to my blog, Delivered Unto Lions can be summarised as a factually-based novel inspired by my own experience as a child psychiatric in-patient in the 1970s. It is not just (a version of) my story, however, as it represents the terrible traumatic experiences of many children and teenagers caught up in the mental healthcare system as it was at that time.


Delivered Unto Lions by David Austin is published in paperback by CheckPoint Press
ISBN 978-1-906628-21-5
eBook edition coming soon
For more information visit