Reframing the disease model vs. the distress model of “mental illness”
My friend Ken Braiterman, who is also the chairman of the board for my business, writes a blog about politics, mental health, baseball, and other oddities. He pointed out that one of the reasons that Democrats loose many public policy debates is that they use Republican terms to form the arguments. For instance, he says that the battle was lost when “Health Insurance Reform” became “Health Care Reform” because people like their health care. He also says that calling “tax cuts for rich” to talk about rates for people making over $250,000 a year fails. People like tax cuts in general, and also hope to be rich someday. In a similar way, I suggest we reframe mental health debates to have a disease model vs. a distress model of “mental illness”.
Our current debate in the recovery movement is a debate between the medical model and the recovery model. In this article interviewing Dan Fisher, the leader of last generation’s recovery movement, he talks about how important it is to view emotional distress as a temporary part of people’s lives. He said, “It is much more difficult to recover once a person is labeled mentally ill.” He points out that people then have to recovery from the emotional issues as well as the label of being a patient. Especially once a person gets on disability, it can be extremely hard to get off , because the benefits are comparable to a $16 an hour job with good health insurance, which is practically impossible to find nowadays, especially with a spotty work history that many of in recovery seem to have. (I’m a big fan of the skills based resume, not the chronological resume.)
The mission statement of Wellness Wordworks and our eight programs reflects this:
- showing emotional distress as temporary and transformative
- offering art, peer support and non-medication wellness techniques
What the Distress Model of “Mental Illness” looks like:
I share these ideas in my social messaging campaign called UnDiagnosing Emotional Distress. Sometimes it’s not genetic. Sometimes mental health “symptoms” come from trauma, poor job fit, difficult family situations, lack of hope, poor exercise, nutrition or sleep, spiritual disconnection, or loss of social connection. In Europe, many people talk about a “Psych Ache,” where we can view troubles as an injury and not an illness. All of these things go away with time. In fact, a leading shizophrenia researcher proposes that even psychosis may simply be an adaptive mechanism to help the brain through difficult times. Or it may simply come when all other coping mechanisms for a person have been overwhelmed. Ron Unger takes a similar approach about the distress model of “mental illness” in his blog, Recovery from “schizophrenia” and other “psychotic” disorders.
The Distress Model of “Mental Illness” can put blame squarely on the disease marketers. I think that the recovery movement needs to take control of how the recovery model is framed. Right now we debate about the recovery model vs. the medical model. However, this has two problems, because the medical model sometimes does help people recover, and it makes the recovery model look less science based. Talking about a distress model for mental illness communicates that our problems are temporary and curable. It communicates that the cure may not be pharmacological. It shows that there are many different solutions for many different people.
Talking about the distress model of “mental illness” can clearly show right away how we differ from large organizations who hire lobbyists to keep making money off our “disease.” The is the basis of my Please Cut our Budgets Campaign for medicaid reform. It is time to get the word out that only 1% of mental health funding is spent actually helping us overcome our difficulties.
How to effectively spread new ideas like the disease model vs. the distress model of “mental illness”:
Let’s build some people power and spread the word that recovery and the distress model of “mental illness” means our problems can GO AWAY. This powerful speech by Bill McKibben from 350.org, the biggest political action in the history of our planet, shows how we can overcome money pollution with the power of our numbers, our energy, our creativity, and being on the right side of justice.