Take it from someone who knows: being an all-around anxious person is difficult. Anxiety is exceedingly common among college students and can throw seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the path of success and goal-directed action. Unfortunately, the increasingly dominant one-size-fits-all approach to addressing anxiety on college campuses and beyond is simultaneously close-minded and destructive.
To allow for empathetic and honest dealing with the potentially devastating consequences of anxiety and related problems, defenders of mental health often assert that physical illnesses and mental illnesses are not really different. Both can affect every major body system and can range from mild to fatal. While it is positive that stigma is being called out and mental health is now openly addressed in the media and in our daily lives, simplistic solutions can sometimes do more harm than good.
One such simplistic notion is the belief that anxiety can or even must be treated with medication. In a radically pro-medication paradigm, those who prefer to meditate, undergo deep breathing exercises or simply work on using their personal issues to their own benefit as best they can might be marginalized.
Side effects and other perfectly scientific defenses for not treating anxiety symptoms with pills aside, those college students who choose not to medicate may soon be a minority. According to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health’s annual report—which spans 140 campuses—in 2015, one out of three college students had taken psychiatric medication. Anxiety was listed by the study as the number one primary concern of students receiving treatment.
That there is not a one-size-fits-all solution for anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses does not discount the need for psychiatric research. Still, it seems that if a huge number of college students complain of symptoms like shakiness, jumpiness and a racing heart, there are two possibilities: either just about everyone has a disorder or society’s joint tendencies to pathologize and seek better living through chemistry have led us to stigmatize the very thing so many are working to de-stigmatize.
Upon breaking a bone or contracting a bad flu, the obvious thing to do is to go to the doctor. Doctors are not infallible and medical opinions are often wrong, but the general procedure for those fortunate enough to live with healthcare access in the developed world is to complain of a physical symptom or ailment, get a prescription and take the pills as directed.
Following this same process with respect to anxiety can result in terrible consequences. The complex and often uncomfortable truth is that it can be incredibly difficult to draw a line between what constitutes a “disorder” and what is an integral part of an individual’s personality. I would argue that certain ideas about mental illness and how it should be treated can actually result in the partial or even total erasure of an individual’s personality—particularly when that personality is chemically altered with psychiatric drugs as a matter of course.
In our effort to give anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses legitimacy by treating them like every other illness, we have lost the ability to recognize the important distinctions between the physical and the psychological. Similarly—in ostensibly embracing mental and emotional difference—we have paradoxically lost our ability to tolerate quirks, as what once may have simply qualified as a healthy degree of neuroticism is now labeled as something much more dangerous. Until a certain degree of anxious behavior is recognized as entirely normal and perhaps even desirable, unjust stigmas will persist.