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Ivy Chang '10: We're all mad here

Almost every Tuesday and Thursday morning, despite arriving ten minutes before class, I can barely find a seat in the filled-to-capacity auditorium where Abnormal Psychology is taught. What exactly is it about classes dealing with mental illness that draws so many people?

Well, we're curious. While it's interesting to learn about how our species functions, we also want a little insight into how we "dysfunction," so to speak.

It simply isn't possible for us not to have had some sort of experience with mental illness at some point in our lives, whether it be personal or through depictions in books, films or television. Everyone has seen the archetypal images of the brooding, alcoholic writer, the psychotic murderer, the person whose frequent hand washings are frantic enough to draw blood.

What makes these people this way? It's a valid question. And while searching for the answers, many people will come to the disconcerting discovery that they exhibit quite a few of the traits listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It's impossible not to begin matching up a few of your own odd habits with the ones listed as symptoms of various disorders in your textbook.

Those extravagant spending sprees that occur right before major exams? The aggravation you feel when you see an extra space or blank bullet point on your study guide that you're not even turning in? The way your clothes have to be organized by color, just so? Those could be compulsions, for sure.

When you start sweating and stumbling through your sentences while giving a class presentation, could you have some form of anxiety disorder? And it's hard not to think, after you've been ill, have tons of work to make up and are trekking all the way across campus in the freezing rain, that you could definitely be diagnosed with depression.

It's humbling, and it may make you more sympathetic to the case studies you'd previously read with judgmentally raised eyebrows. However, it is important to remember one of my psychology professor's first warnings in class: students should not diagnose themselves. It seems all too easy, but it is almost always inaccurate.

Delving into psychology should not only give insight into cardboard cutout stereotypes of the mentally ill — Edgar Allan Poe, Norman Bates, Howard Hughes — but also help people realize that mental illness exists on a continuum. Most cases do not have a clear "yes" or "no" diagnosis, and many of the symptoms that people use to self-diagnose are just gradients on a large scale, displayed with varying intensity by everyone around them.
Incorrect diagnoses can result in what Dr. Paul Chodoff calls the "medicalization of the human condition," fixing a medical label to feelings that may be unpleasant but are simply "inescapable aspects of the fate of being human." Diagnoses also become the focus of blame for all individual troubles, while other important social context is ignored.

Most importantly, self-diagnosis can tip the scale in the favor of drug treatment. According to a 2006 National College Health Assessment, about 30 percent of college students take medication for depression. As a 2007 Herald editorial wrote, "it's alarming that opting for medication as the solution to mental health issues can be so simple."

Our new knowledge of mental illness symptoms, when wedded to the glossy and memorable drug advertisements that pop up on the Internet, television and in magazines, can become more dangerous than demystifying. It can twist the fact that everyone feels anxious or depressed at times, making us think instead that "everyone" is also diagnosed or on medication. 

I remember that many of us laughed in response to the professor's warning not to self-diagnose — some dismissively, but some perhaps all too knowingly.

Information about mental illness doesn't only attract people curious to learn about something that "the other" has, but also those curious to see what outsiders have to say about what they're already suffering from. A significant minority of Brown students seek out Psychological Services for help. There are many whose lives are seriously affected by the symptoms so casually listed in mental health textbooks.

College is a trying time for practically everyone. It's stressful — people are forced to adapt to an entirely new environment with different faces, places and rules, or lack thereof. With parents and other authority figures not constantly able to monitor our every move, it's easy to let a small stress build into something much bigger in the relative isolation of a dorm room.

There are benefits to understanding and sympathizing with the mentally ill, but it's important not to contribute to a trivialization or overgeneralization of their experience.

Ivy Chang '10 is a human biology concentrator from Los Angeles, California. She can be reached at ivy_chang (at)


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