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Current focus: Sick Normality?

It is a striking, if not already notorious fact of our time that it is now the statistical norm to be diagnosed with at least one “mental disorder” in one’s lifetime. From being a rare occurrence affecting about 1% of the population, there has been an exponential rise of diagnosis since 1980. In 2003, the estimated lifetime prevalence stood already at nearly half of the adult population in the USA. A 2020 longitudinal study in New Zealand found that, by the time people had reached the age of forty-five, 86% met the criteria for at least one “mental disorder”, and, in most cases, more than one.

Being diagnosed as sick has become normality.


“Mental disorder” has moved to being seen as a major health burden. The WHO in 2017 considered “depression” as the single largest contributor to global disability, with over 300 million affected; and nearly the same number again suffering from a range of “anxiety disorders”. These trends have been accompanied by a prescription epidemic. In industrialised countries, we reached the point where about one in five of the adult population has been given a psychiatric drug prescription within the last year. Prescription levels are increasing, and the length of prescriptions is increasing, with ever-more groups of population included.


At the same time, there is mounting evidence that despite huge sums invested in psychiatric research, the current diagnostic paradigm in psychiatry remains on shaky foundation. The formation and development process of its diagnostic categories has been criticised as unscientific, influenced by economic interests of the pharma industry, and not sufficiently mindful of the legacies of patriarchy and colonialism.


Moreover, there is accumulating evidence that clinical outcomes, even on their own terms, have either flatlined or become worse. Pharmaceutical interventions for various “disorders” are often no more effective than placebos, while coming with significant side effects, which, in turn, negatively impact physical and mental health. The current mental health system involves deprivation of liberty and coercion, and more and more people feel uncomfortable about the retraumatising of people that occurs through it. 

Changing Perspective

When it has become so normal to be sick during one’s lifetime, we should ask whether the dominant psychiatric conception of pathology is itself pathological and thus misrepresenting sickness. There are certain social conditions that may make any one of us sick. When sickness is so wide-spread, perhaps, then, it is what we see as “social normality” that is sick or even mad. Why and how does the society’s normal functioning require of us reactions and responses that its own medical establishment considers “pathological”? What is the relationship between this state of affairs and the (neoliberal) socio-political structures of Western societies?  

The work of the Centre for Investigating Contemporary Social Ills is about uncovering what socio-political and psychological processes sustain the psychiatric ‘diagnosis and drug’ approach, despite its well-documented problems. We aim to shift our collective attention to the social ills resulting in mental distress. We are looking for responses to distress that don’t pathologise the individual but effect change on the social level and in a way that is specific to the context in question. We believe this is an approach that would genuinely benefit individuals and release pressure on our stretched health and care systems.  


Interested to find out more about the work of the Centre for Investigating Contemporary Social Ills or want to contribute to its work? Please contact us using the contact function of this website.  

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