Anxiety and Depression: The Limits of Diagnosis

by Rosalie Dores on 14th November 2017

Check out this insightful biographical piece by Alex Delfont, musician and filmmaker at The Newlife Foundation.

‘Disclaimer : The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and should not be construed as professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of a healthcare professional and do not disregard this advice or delay seeking it because of anything you read on this website’

I never liked the term ‘mental health issues’ and apparently I’ve had quite a few. It implies there’s something defective about a person and lays all the responsibility at their feet. Statistics show that a quarter of the population of the UK and US have anxiety or depression and it’s only getting worse. These statistics leave me wondering if there’s something wrong with us or is it an appropriate response to a world that can so often feel stressful, lonely, hostile and meaningless?

We’ve all but lost our sense of community, many countries are facing economic instability, terrorism is rife and unpredictable and we’re increasingly focussed on lofty egocentric goals such as being famous or wealthy. Then there’s the onslaught of media that lures us into the illusion that everyone’s doing better than us. People have certainly always suffered and most of us are safer and more comfortable than ever before, yet a pervading sense of angst seems to have become the norm. This new normal could be attributed to the growing disconnection and complexities of the modern world but also largely due to overdiagnosis.

The DSM or ‘the bible of psychiatry’ as its known was published in 1952 and contained 106 disorders, including homosexuality! The current DSM-5 has 365. Do all these new illnesses really exist or have we just found finer grains of categorisation for symptoms of a more fundamental problem?

It’s been reported that two thirds of those involved in creating the DSM-5 have ties to the pharmaceutical industry; a multi-million dollar industry that profits from people’s suffering. The DSM has been criticised for being unscientific and for pathologising normal behaviour such as grief, worry and even sibling rivalry. The result of such abundant diagnostics means that more people than ever are taking medication and believe there’s something wrong with them.

A diagnosis is made with the intention of getting a person the right treatment. You can’t treat something until you know what it is. This may be completely appropriate in the world of broken bones and infections, but when it comes to the psyche; a universe which is still mostly a mystery to us, often diagnoses are vague at best.

As I write this I’m aware of the dangers of trivialising anxiety and depression, whilst also trying to be sensitive to issues so severe they rely on a diagnosis, acute support and medication. I know from personal experience the torment of anxiety and depression and I’ve also been grateful for the diagnosis and medicine available when family members have been through psychosis.

If I ask myself honestly whether the diagnoses and medications have helped me, the answer would be no. The best support I found came from outside the mainstream medical paradigm; those who saw past the label and provided a safe place for me to explore the darker side of life and find the path that led me through it. This is something I feel is sorely lacking in our culture and the popular illusion of a perfect life seems to create the exact opposite.

Research into neuroplasticity continues to show the brain’s ability to change drastically depending on our life experiences and the way we choose to act and think. The expression ‘neurons that fire together wire together’ expresses how repetition strengthens associated neural pathways. Although this possibility for change is a positive thing, it also means that what starts as normal disillusionment and fear may soon turn into something debilitating and chronic. If we know our brains can transform on a fundamental level should we believe in a diagnosis or prescription for the rest of our lives?

I used to identify as having anxiety and panic disorder. The doctor had labelled me as such, I’d taken the medication, I’d had a lot of therapy, and I worried a lot. New Life hasn’t been a panacea but it’s helped me to realise that in the right environment I can be productive, inspired and happy. I’ve learned that every wound comes with a gift and that being sensitive is not a weakness to be medicated. For some, maybe what’s needed instead of a label and more pills is a caring ear and some guidance on how best to navigate the inevitable difficulties life presents us with.

For me the greatest medicine and the hardest to swallow has been acceptance. Not passively giving in to suffering, but living constructively in spite of pain. Sadness, loneliness, shame, anxiety and depression are parts of life and every human being experiences them to some degree. The words we use to describe them may change with time and culture, but the raw experience is the same.

There’s no cure for being alive, and depending on how you look at it, maybe no real problem to be solved.