Letter to the Independent (on Sunday)
Judging from the Independent on Sunday's feature on Stephen Fry's high-profile outing as a bipolar-defined person, we can look forward to a new season of personality disorder awareness raising. If we believe the hype, until the mid 1990s human beings labelled with the new generation of behavioural disorders lived in the dark ages condemned to a life deprived of media-filtered awareness of their plight, a burgeoning support and counselling sector and a new range of wonder-drugs, without which, we are led to believe, affected subjects would commit either suicide or heinous antisocial crimes.
Over the last 15 years we have witnessed a gradual extension and proliferation of the traditional set of psychiatric disorders, often blurring distinctions with learning disabilities as in the case of autism, to encompass a growing proportion of the population. These range from ADHD kids weaned on Ritalin, Tourettes, Asperger's, obsessive compulsives, manic depressives, bipolar-disordered to schizophrenics, a surprisingly high percentage of whose psychotic episodes were triggered by recreational drugs.
Yet all the symptoms associated with these personality syndromes exist to varying degrees in the general undiagnosed population. If you have never felt depressed, heard inner voices, harboured paranoid thoughts, felt alienated, been obsessed with a special interest or had an annoying habit, you have probably led a very pampered and sheltered existence. The awareness raising industry may define these symptoms as pathological, but they are often a natural reaction to myriad personal injustices in a climate of heightened interpersonal competition and insatiable material expectations and hedonism. Obsessive societies tend to create obsessed citizens. When will we start treating each other as individual members of a community, each with our relative strengths and weaknesses, and stop categorising those of us who for a complex set of environmental and biological reasons are deemed misfits? When will we refocus our attention on identifying the real causes of personal woes, nearly always psycho-social, and stem this dangerous drift towards genetic fundamentalism. Neuroscience is very much in its infancy, but has already revealed the immense plasticity and thus adaptability of the orbito-frontal cortex of the human brain in reaction to real life events. 5 to 10 percent of the population is not subhuman and cross-cultural comparisons show huge variations in the definition and treatment of those of us who experience emotional disturbances. If Mr Fry wants a label, let it be Stephen Fry Syndrome.