Drama? Or trauma?

The representation of mental disorders in society and pop culture repeatedly misses, at best, the nuances associated with the experience of living with a mental disorder. In the attempt of characterizing psychiatric disorders by creating dramatic and oversimplified caricatures, have we failed to recognize something fundamental that we all share to some extent despite our diagnostic boundaries?

This post is also available in Dutch.

Pop culture has the tendency to stigmatize people with mental disorders, portraying them in an absurd and burlesque way. Films like “Psycho” and “Split”, for example, fall in the category of movies that use mental disorder as a trope that scares people with characters who are portrayed as evil, emotionally disturbed, ruthless, and extremely violent.

We also use hurtful language that either oversimplifies or straight up ridicules someone’s experience of any mental condition, whatever its form and severity. Phrases like “feeling depressed” for periods of severe sadness and fatigue or “being OCD” and “a neat freak” for being highly organized have become part of everyday vocabulary. While the use of such phrases can look harmless at first sight, the undertones of their use reduce the experience of a mental disorder to an adjective and certainly diminish the complexity of it.

This attitude seems to only reinforce the idea that a mental disorder is a static entity, far away from us, that some people are just unlucky enough to be born with. But is this really the case? This is a question worth pondering given that all of us can probably remember this one humiliating time when we overreacted over nothing or didn’t feel exactly like ourselves after something stressful had happened.

Psychopathology and the powers at play

Psychopathology – the study of psychiatric conditions – was founded by Karl Jaspers in 1913, but its questions have occupied human minds long before this. The occurrence of a mental disorder has gone from being attributed to possessions by evil spirits and demons to being recognized as a very complex process that involves genes and environment.

Recent efforts have led to the identification of early-life trauma as one of the strongest risk factor for the emergence of a mental disorder. So far, research has shown and elaborated on the lasting effects of trauma on the brain and how the brains of people that have experienced significant trauma differ from the brains of individuals with less severe trauma(s) in their history. This relationship between trauma and mental disorders has only recently started being investigated, with the link between depression and childhood trauma being the most prominent one studied up to now.

Psychiatry’s view on psychopathology is changing

Psychiatry relies on the separation of individuals with a mental disorder from the unaffected ones. This case-control concept has helped clinicians over the years to communicate the symptomatology of different conditions, along with potential remedies. Nevertheless, nowadays many resources are targeting a more personalized approach in psychiatry, as discussed further in a previous blog post “Can you say what is normal?”.

This approach utilizes a new perspective, dimensional instead of categorical, in order to explore and quantify the factors at play in individuals affected by such a condition. These factors can be biological in nature or environmental, and one aspect could be the experience of previous trauma during development, as mentioned before. Tools developed for this aim place the affected individuals along a spectrum of symptomatology. However, healthy individuals also display similar symptoms, although of a much milder magnitude, stating that, in essence, some degree of psychopathology exists in all of us and therefore going against a clear-cut approach between what constitutes psychopathology and what does not.

Most of us do not fulfill the diagnostic criteria for a mental disorder, but many of us have been through some kind of trauma that can certainly differ in its emotional valence and impact on our lives (depending on our level of resilience – see older post). And while not all trauma leads necessarily to a disorder, the relationship between those two can shed light on conditions that have tortured the human psyche for years, along with ensuring a more empathetic view from the society.

Original language: English

Author: Christina Isakoglou
Buddy: Kim Beneyton
Editor: Marisha Manahova
Translator: Felix Klaassen
Editor Translation: Jill Naaijen

Header photo credit: Christina Isakoglou

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