This month we’ve been discussing a variety of mental health issues from mental illness to neuroplasticity to how Hollywood portrays mental health. Throughout all of these discussions, though, I’ve been left wondering what is normal in regards to mental health.
So, I started my investigation where I normally start when I’m confused: the dictionary. (Yes, I have an actual, physical dictionary.) This is what I discovered:
normal, noun – the usual, average, or typical state or condition
Based on this definition, a person who is mentally ‘normal’ has an average brain, average mind, and average behavior. A mentally ‘normal’ person is similar to most other people. Science has revealed what the structure of the average brain is, what the average levels of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) are, how the average brain processes and learns new information, and how the average person behaves.
While I am a scientist and value all the knowledge that science has given us, I am not a fan of the above definition of normal. This definition implies that people who are not average are somehow abnormal, are somehow less than everyone else. This idea of normality adds fuel to the stigmas associated with mental illness: if people suffering from mental illness are less than normal, then it’s okay to disrespect them.
Luckily, the dictionary contains another and better (at least I think so) definition for normal:
normal, noun – a person who is physically or mentally healthy
Unfortunately, now we’re stuck with trying to find a definition for healthy. (Don’t worry – I’m not going to consult the dictionary this time.) There are many ways to be healthy, and we all get to define what is healthy for us. When I think about being healthy, especially being mentally healthy, I ask myself the following questions:
- Am I happy with the direction my life is heading?
- Are my friends/family/doctors/et cetera expressing concerns about me and my life choices?
- Am I at risk of hurting myself or others?
But, I think the best definition of normal is an abbreviated version of the previous definition:
normal, noun – a person
All of us, we are all different people. We come from different backgrounds, different cultures. We all have different hopes and dreams. We all have different strengths and talents. We all have a different definition of what normal is. But despite all of our differences, we all have one very important thing in common: we are all human. Human – that’s the same “typical state or condition” for each of us; thus, according to the first definition of normal that I shared, being human is being normal. Let me repeat that, being human is being normal.
You are human – you are normal, and no matter what else is going on in your life, you deserve respect and dignity.
Special thanks to the New Oxford American Dictionary, Second Edition