The thing to keep in mind is that "mental illness" is a label. It's a label we use to categorize and define certain behaviors. It should be clinical and neutral, nonetheless it stigmatizes people. A label like this makes you look at people with doubt, with paranoia, with questions. And sometimes not with compassion, not with understanding, and not with friendship.
I've been suffering from depression for awhile now. But let's see: Is it mental illness? is it "clinical depression," or "chronic depression"? or is it situational depression?
In fact, it's situational. Some of it can be traced to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). In the past five years, my life has been extremely stressful, challenging, and turbulent: I gave up my own career and income to move back in with my parents to be their live-in, full-time caregiver until they died. They died, and I immediately was diagnosed with a chronic illness, ulcerative colitis. That illness almost killed me last year, when I almost bled to death and had major anemia which I still am recovering from, and this past year I've gone through the first of three surgeries to cure and correct the problem. I'm still recovering from that first surgery—and even though physically my strength is better than it's been in years, and even though I have an immune system again and managed to not get the flu, bronchitis, or walking pneumonia this winter, for the first time in a dozen years—some days I'm really depressed. Just like I used to be.
It turns out I've had this chronic illness for a couple of decades, but it wasn't diagnosed till recently. Looking back, I can see how UC caused a lot of problems that, at the time, my family, many of my friends, and even myself thought were caused by a bad attitude (tired all the time), a lack of ambition (UC drains your energy, will, and life-force), and being unable to focus (having a wide range of career choices, but never knowing what I wanted to do when I grew up; in fact, there are mental and cognitive consequences to being anemic and exhausted all the time, one of which is being unable to focus some days). These were the favorites amongst other psychological explanations that it turns out were a smoke screen. In other words I was sick for twenty years with a physical illness that had consequences for my mental stability and cognitive resources. Was I mentally ill? No—but many people treated me as if I was. And I believed them.
Reframing this experience now, I can see clearly how the last two decades of my life had been overshadowed by a physical illness that ruined me, but which everyone thought was a mental or psychological problem. Or even an attitude problem.
So if you want to leap to conclusions and label people you know as mentally ill, well, go ahead, that's your right. As Eric Frank Russell once remarked, "Every man has the basic right to go to hell in his own way." But just in case you might have leapt too quickly to a conclusion that's unwarranted, you might occasionally want to step back and take a look at your own assumptions about what "mental illness" means.
What most people actually mean, when they talk about mental health, is a social rather than psychological expectation that people conform to social norms and values and don't act weird. It means get a job, be a normal person, don't stand out, conform to the social normative ideas of what "success" means. Don't be different. Don't be of all things an artist.
Being an artist means being different. And being born gay means being different. It's no wonder so many gay men have mental health issues, when we're raised in a culture that hates and fears us, and still treats us a second-class citizens, and tries to deny us civil rights and social equality. The high incidence of gay men who support political candidates that would strip away their civil rights, given a chance, speaks to a high incidence of lingering and inarticulate internalized self-hatred. Whenever people vote against their own best interests or highest good, you can be sure there is, underneath their rhetoric, some lack of self-esteem, some insecurity.
"Mental health" is a normative concept; it usually means that you're supposed to think and act like everyone else, not be "eccentric" or "weird" or somehow not part of the usual narrative mythos of the American Dream of economic individualism at all costs, or the Dream of Technological Progress, or other sociopolitical myths that we're all supposed to believe and conform to. Individualism vs. collectivism are modern social myths that drive many people's unconscious self-destructive choices.
But every aspect of this is wrong. Socially normative "mental health" is a narrative of conformity and subjugation. The myth is that mental health is a stable steady state. The fragility of this self-image is evinced by the relentless social (tribal) peer pressure to conform to the norm.
Genuine self-esteem does not fear diversity or disagreement, and does not attempt to enforce conformity. Genuine, actual mental health is a state of flexibility and adaptability, being able to cope with change and hardship, being able to celebrate joy and love. Genuine mental health allows for eccentricity and individual variation. Mental balance and psychological/ecological dynamic health accepts the inclusion of dark days as well as happy ones, and celebrates both as authentic to the fully-nuanced, full-range human experience.
For myself, I've affirmed many times, and it's still true, that art-making is a positive force in my life that has kept me alive, that has kept me sane. For me music is medicine, music is sanity.
One of the only really useful definitions of insanity I've ever heard is a very simple, pragmatic one. It goes like this:
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and each time expecting an outcome different than the last time.
This definition speaks to individual mental health, to common sense reasoning, and flexibility in the face of changing circumstances. It speaks to how people can get stuck in social and political ideologies that create a bubble of unreality that everyone but the person inside the bubble can see. And it speaks to the group pathology of socially-enforced normative conformity, ranging from peer pressure to fascism, revealing these to be inherently insecure and unstable.
It speaks to the truth that when you are a sane person living in an insane world, the rest of the world labels you as insane, when in fact the opposite is true. It speaks to the truth that lots of times you're right and the world is wrong. Nothing crushes self-esteem more readily than the social need for conformity to normative social expectations that the person cannot live up to (or down to), and is unable to follow.
And it is underlined by a bit of wisdom from everyone's favorite genius uncle, Albert Einstein: "You cannot solve a problem by using the same kind of thinking that created the problem."
So, go ahead. Judge others as "mentally ill." You might even be right, some of the time. No more than that, though. Because lots of folks who we judge as mentally ill are in fact just having a hard time living up to your expectations of who they're supposed to be, and how they're supposed to behave.
Some wise man named Yeshua bar Joseph once quipped, "Judge not, lest ye be judged." If all the people who claim to speak for Jesus, who claim to speak in his name, would just remind themselves of his actual words, "Judge not," imagine what kind of world we might actually be able to make for ourselves.