[Paleopsych] spiked-health: Our unhealthy obsession with sickness

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Our unhealthy obsession with sickness
[Foucault was indeed prescient.]

    Why is being ill now embraced as a positive part of the human

    by Frank Furedi

    We live in a world where illnesses are on the increase. The
    distinguishing feature of the twenty-first century is that health has
    become a dominant issue, both in our personal lives and in public
    life. It has become a highly politicised issue, too, and an
    increasingly important site of government intervention and
    policymaking. With every year that passes, we seem to spend more and
    more time and resources thinking about health and sickness. I think
    there are four possible reasons for this.
    First, there is the imperative of medicalisation. When the concept of
    medicalisation was first formulated, in the late 1960s and early
    1970s, it referred to a far narrower range of phenomena than is the
    case today - and it was linked to the actions of a small number of
    professionals rather than having the all-pervasive character that it
    does now.
    Essentially, the term medicalisation means that problems we encounter
    in everyday life are reinterpreted as medical ones. So problems that
    might traditionally have been defined as existential - that is, the
    problems of existence - have a medical label attached to them. Today,
    it is difficult to think of any kind of human experience that doesn't
    come with a health warning or some kind of medical explanation.
    It is not only the experience of pain or distress or disappointment or
    engagement with adversity that is medicalised and seen as potentially
    traumatic and stress-inducing; even human characteristics are
    medicalised now. Consider shyness. It is quite normal to be shy; there
    are many circumstances where many of us feel shy and awkward. Yet
    shyness is now referred to as 'social phobia'. And, of course, when a
    medical label is attached to shyness, it is only a matter of time
    before a pharmaceutical company comes up with a 'shyness pill'. Pop
    these pills, and you too can become the life and soul of the party!
    One of my hobbies is to read press releases informing us of the
    existence of a new illness, the 'illness of the week', if you like.
    Recently I received one that said: 'Psychologists say that love
    sickness is a genuine disease and needs more awareness and diagnoses.
    Those little actions that are normally seen as the symptoms of the
    first flush of love - buying presents, waiting by the phone, or making
    an effort before a date - may actually be signs of a deep-rooted
    problem to come. Many people who suffer from love sickness cannot cope
    with the intensity of love and have been destabilised by falling in
    love or suffer on account of their love being unrequited.'
    Of course, an intense passion can and does have an impact upon our
    bodies. But when even love can be seen as the harbinger of illness,
    what aspect of our lives can be said to be illness-free? What can we
    possibly do that will not apparently induce some sickness or syndrome?
    Medicalisation no longer knows any limits. It is so intrusive that it
    can impact on virtually any of our experiences, creating a situation
    where illness is increasingly perceived as normal.
    This leads to my second point - there is now a presupposition that
    illness is as normal as health. Earlier theories of medicalisation
    still considered illness to be the exception; now, being ill is seen
    as a normal state, possibly even more normal than being healthy. We
    are all now seen as being potentially ill; that is the default state
    we live in today.
    This can be glimpsed in the increasing use of the term 'wellness',
    with well men's clinics and well women's clinics. 'Wellness', another
    relatively recent concept, is a peculiar term. It presupposes that
    being well is not a natural or normal state. After all, there are no
    such things as 'sunshine clinics' or 'evening clincs'; such normal
    things do not normally need an institution attached to them. And why
    would you have to visit a wellness clinic if you were well, anyway? It
    makes little sense.
    Wellness has become something you have to work on, something to aspire
    to and achieve. This reinforces the presupposition that not being well
    - or being ill - is the normal state. That is what our culture says to
    us now: you are not okay, you are not fine; you are potentially ill.
    The message seems to be that if you do not subscribe to this project
    of keeping well, you will revert to being ill.
    In supermarkets, especially in middle-class neighbourhoods, buying
    food has become like conducting a scientific experiment. Individuals
    spend hours looking at how many carbohydrates there are, whether it's
    organic, natural, holistic. Spending time reading labels is one way of
    doing your bit to keep well.
    Being potentially ill is now so prevalent that we have reached a
    situation where illness becomes a part of our identity, part of the
    human condition.
    Some of us might not flaunt it, walking around saying, 'I've got a gum
    disease' or 'I've got a bad case of athlete's foot'. That doesn't
    sound very sexy, and is unlikely to go down well at the dinner table.
    But it has become acceptable to talk openly about other illnesses - to
    declare that you are a cancer survivor, or to flaunt a disability. As
    we normalise illness, our identity becomes inextricably linked to
    illness. So it is normal to be ill, and to be ill is normal.
    The nature of illness changes when it becomes part of our identity.
    When we invest so much emotion in an illness, when it becomes such a
    large aspect of our lives through the illness metaphor, we start to
    embrace it - and it can be very difficult to let go of that part of
    our identity. This is why illness tends to become more durable and
    last longer. Sickness is no longer a temporary episode: it is
    something that, increasingly, afflicts one for life. You are scarred
    for life, with an indelible stamp on your personality. This can be
    seen in the idea of being a cancer survivor or some other kind of
    survivor; we are always, it seems, in remission. The illness remains
    part of us, and shapes our personality.
    As this happens, illnesses start to acquire features that are no
    longer negative. In the past, illness was seen as a bad thing. Today
    you can read illness diaries in the Guardian and other newspapers and
    magazines. We often hear the phrase: 'I've learned so much about
    myself through my illness.' It becomes a pedagogic experience: 'I may
    have lost a leg and half my brain cells, but I'm learning so much from
    this extremely unique experience.' It's almost like going to
    university, something positive, to be embraced, with hundreds of books
    telling us how to make the most of the experience of sickness.
    We are not simply making a virtue out of a necessity; rather we are
    consciously valuing illness. From a theoretical standpoint, we might
    view illness as the first order concept, and wellness as the second
    order concept. Wellness is subordinate, methodologically, to the state
    of being ill.
    The third influence is today's cultural script, the cultural narrative
    that impacts on our lives, which increasingly uses health to make
    sense of the human experience. The more uncertainty we face, the more
    difficult we find it to make statements of moral purpose, the more
    ambiguous we feel about what is right and wrong, then the more
    comfortable we feel using the language of health to make sense of our
    lives. At a time of moral and existential uncertainty, health has
    become an important idiom through which to provide guidance to
    This is now so prevalent that we no longer even notice when we are
    doing it. For example, we no longer tell teenagers that pre-marital
    sex is good or bad or sinful. Instead we say that pre-marital sex is a
    health risk. Sex education programmes teach that you will be
    emotionally traumatised if pressured into having sex and will be
    generally healthier if you stay at home and watch TV instead.
    There are few clear moral guidelines that can direct our behaviour
    today; but we have become very good at using health to regulate
    people's lives in an intrusive and systematic fashion.
    Even medicine and food have acquired moral connotations. So some drugs
    are said to be bad for the environment, while others, especially those
    made with a natural herb, are seen as being morally superior. Organic
    food is seen as 'good', not only in nutritional terms, but in moral
    terms. Junk food, on the other hand, is seen as evil.
    If you look at the language that is used to discuss health and
    medicine, or obese people and their body shapes, it isn't just about
    health: we are making moral statements. A fat person is considered to
    have a serious moral problem, rather than simply a health one. As we
    become morally illiterate, we turn to health to save us from
    circumstances where we face a degree of moral or spiritual
    The fourth influence is the politicisation of health. Health has
    become a focus of incessant political activity. Politicians who have
    little by way of beliefs or passions, and don't know what to say to
    the public, are guaranteed a response if they say something
    health-related. Some also make a lot of money from the health issue,
    from pharmaceutical companies to alternative health shops to
    individual quacks selling their wares - all are in the business,
    essentially, of living of today's health-obsessed cultural sentiment.
    Governments today do two things that I object to in particular. First
    they encourage introspection, telling us that unless men examine their
    testicles, unless we keep a check on our cholesterol level, then we
    are not being responsible citizens. You are letting down yourself,
    your wife, your kids, everybody. We are encouraged continually to
    worry about our health. As a consequence, public health initiatives
    have become, as far as I can tell, a threat to public health.
    Secondly, governments promote the value of health seeking. We are
    meant always to be seeking health for this or that condition. The
    primary effect of this, I believe, is to make us all feel more ill.
    Here's a prediction - Western societies are not going to overcome the
    crisis of healthcare; it is beyond the realms of possibility. No
    matter what policies government pursue, or how much money they throw
    at the problem, even if they increase health expenditure fourfold, the
    problem will not go away. As long as the normalisation of illness
    remains culturally affirmed, more and more of us are likely to
    identify ourselves as sick, and will identify ourselves as sick for a
    growing period of time. The solution to this problem lies not in the
    area of policymaking, or even medicine, but in the cultural sphere.

    Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent, and
    author of Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting
    Twenty-First Century Philistinism (buy this book from [2]Amazon (UK)
    or [3]Amazon (USA)). This is an edited version of a speech he gave at
    Health: An Unhealthy Obsession, a conference hosted by the Institute
    of Ideas in London on 12 February 2005. Visit his website [4]here.


    1. http://www.spiked-online.com/sections/health/index.htm
    2. http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0826467695/spiked
    3. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0826467695/spiked-20
    4. http://www.frankfuredi.com/

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