Philobiblon: Drought and mental illness: a question of definition

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Drought and mental illness: a question of definition

The technical definition of "drought" is of prolonged, abnormally dry weather. Yet somehow, whenever I check in on the Australian rural world, most of Australia is "in" drought, or "just coming out of" drought, or "facing" a drought. There's a simple failure here to face the reality of the continent's climate. It is dry, normally dry, and Australian agriculture is often trying to do things that the climatic conditions cannot support.

I thought of this when I read a piece in the Guardian suggesting that one in ten pre-school children might be suffering from mental illness. Now I assume that most people would agree that mental illness is by definition an abnormality. But if one in 10 in a population is suffering from something, isn't that just a variation of normal, and something that should be catered to and allowed for, rather than "treated"?

6 Comments:

Blogger Tony said...

No, this doesn't make sense. The suggestion in the Guardian piece is that the incidence of mental illness in the young is a recent development, like, say, the increased prevalence of asthma; are you saying that this is also a variation of normal and should be catered to and allowed for and not treated? What's your lower limit for "a variation of normal"—5%, 1%, 0.1%?

11/29/2005 01:54:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

There's not a word in the story that makes any comparison with historical material, no doubt with good reason, since I very much doubt any comparable studies were done ten years ago, let alone 20 or 50 or more. So there's nothing to suggest this is a new situation

11/29/2005 02:06:00 pm  
Blogger Tony said...

What you say still doesn't make sense. And what's your answer to the second question?

11/29/2005 02:18:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Well I think it does make sense - we need to clearly understand and defined "the normal", and do so very carefully if we're not to make major policy errors.

On the second point I think you'd have to look at each case individually. An example that comes to mind is that public transport was once utterly inaccessible to wheel-chair-users. They weren't defined as part of the group of "normal" travellers, but they are, slowly, coming to be included, as they should be. But they are a small percentage of the population.

11/29/2005 02:27:00 pm  
Blogger Tony said...

On the second point, by all means let's consider this case individually: you say that if 10% of children are mentally ill this is just a variation of normal and something that should be catered to and allowed for, rather than "treated"? Suppose it were only 9%, or 8%...? Would you agree that if it were 1% then it would be reasonal to think of it as an abnormality and try to treat it?
Don't bother to answer that. I am just making the point that "to clearly understand and define the normal carefully" is not a simple matter, and that the answer to the question in your post is arguable.

11/29/2005 02:50:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Well we seem to be agreeing - that is indeed what I was saying - maybe I didn't spell it out, but I thought the inference was clear enough: there seems to be a problem in this study in the definition of "ill", or rather the definition of "normal". And since "mentally ill" is merely a definition, not an absolute state, there might just be a problem with the definition.

11/29/2005 03:02:00 pm  

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