My Alternative to the Disease Model, Part 1 of 2


Label and Medicate: The Disease Model of Emotional Distress

Label and Medicate: The Disease Model of Emotional Distress

The Disease Model of  emotional distress victimized and traumatized me inexcusably several times in the past.   Eighteen months ago, in the hospital, my clearly situational, trauma-based depression was inappropriately framed as a disease.

I’d previously been carelessly and crassly misdiagnosed — then, mistreated — twice. Part of my real problem was my dysfunctional family:  my parents “bullied” me, choosing a lackluster counselor, unhealed from her own family problems. I was especially angry at a seemingly negative system by the time I was labeled unfairly in the hospital.

Was I Sick, Or Emotionally Distressed?

From age 13 to 17, I was falsely labeled with “Borderline Personality Disorder,” and made to doubt my capabilities unjustly.  Once, in college, at age 21, after a suicide attempt, a terrible therapist from the school unjustly diagnosed me with paranoid schizophrenia after one or two meetings, and having me take an ambiguously worded computerized test — just the way I’d been “diagnosed” with Borderline years earlier.

The disease model of emotional distress says an overpowering reaction to these abnormal, distressing events is a permanent disease that requires heavy, invasive medication for life.  If the person believes and internalizes the message he gets from disease model practitioners, their hopeless predictions can become self-fulfilling.

Medication Made My Distress Worse

The antipsychotics made me psychotic, and I finally ripped myself off of them, despite my “bullying” father’s unfair threat that he wouldn’t have a relationship with me if I didn’t take them. But when I stopped, the psychotic symptoms stopped. I’d never really had them in the first place.

When I was suffering on the drugs, my grades suffered, because I missed classes and assignments, and  couldn’t concentrate. I remember working hard for a lot of “D”‘s, being told I was “irresponsible,” or being misunderstood intellectually, then, being pissed off and humiliated!

Even my legitimate diagnoses — Post Traumatic Distress and insomnia —  made me feel devastated and pigeonholed when it was called PTSD, a “disorder,” despite my usual determination not to feel that way, despite some professionals’ desires for me not to.

The disease model of emotional distress — seeking a diagnosis and pill for every bad feeling — must be stopped!

Medication and Post-Traumatic Distress

I have been diagnosed — I believe, accurately — with insomnia and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I have continually managed both in a number of ways, including strong medication for the insomnia. I have struggled with insomnia since age 7.

I developed PTSD in 2001 after the traumatic death of my adoptive mother, and viewing her decomposing body. Doctors and I believe other factors contributed:

  • My beloved adoptive grandmother’s traumatic death in 1993
  • Abandonment issues
  • Dysfunctional and broken family dynamics
  • Many instances of emotional abuse.

I don’t take medication(s) for PTSD because there aren’t any. However, therapy did teach me proven management techniques which worked.

(Editor’s note: Psychologist Paula Jane Caplan, who works with traumatized combat veterans, opposes the label PTSD, because a lasting emotional reaction to horrible events like combat, rape, and other abuse is a normal human response, not a disease.

Attacked by Mental Health Language Police

Recently, I was up for a case manager position for “SMI Adults” with Magellan Health Services in Phoenix. I heard about the job from a blogger, who is happy working for Magellan as a Peer Mentor.

I described the job in a presentation to a mental health consumer conference, and received about 50 angry comments. How could I label anyone “SMI” (severely mentally ill) after knowing personally the demeaning message of labels (especially false ones)?!

I got frustrated fast. I’d used “SMI” as an efficient, clear term to describe my would-be clients in a short Facebook post. I’d merely reiterated this term from the organization’s job description. This had nothing to do with labeling — or, so I thought.

An Alternative to the Disease Model of Emotional Distress

Corinna West advocates "distress language"

Corinna West advocates “distress language”

Corinna West, founder, CEO, and creative director of Wellness Wordworks helped me see straight. Her situation of “temporary and transformative” psychosis, as well as the brutal effects of the disease model — labeling and unneeded, toxic anti-psychotics — is detailed on this site.

Medication and the disease model of emotional distress, which labeled her incurably  psychotic and schizophrenic, had damaged her too, until she learned better.

Corinna is not anti-medication; she advocates its “judicious use”. In Corinna’s case, she needed to heal trauma — her psychosis’s underlying cause. Peer support with another psychiatric survivor and friend helped.  She got understanding, hope, and self-insights she never did from the system.

Corinna detests diagnoses of permanent brain disease. They become labels. She, along with others are starting a movement to change language for psychiatric sufferers. For example:

1.)  A new term for “consumer” (of mental health services) is“peer,” for people still using mental health services, or “psychiatric survivor,” if still receiving services, but traumatized by the system at any point.

2.)  “Mentally ill” or – in extreme cases — “SMI” (adults, adolescents and/orchildren) would be “emotionally distressed,” which is not an incurable brain disease. One can out of distress transformed, whole or stronger than before.

I’m looking for suggestions for a new term for “Persons suffering from a chemical imbalance,” when the issue appears to be permanent and unchanging.

Do you believe the disease model of emotional distress?



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