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Mental Illness or Human Suffering?

In recent years, we are becoming more acceptant of labels belonging to the medical professions in our everyday life. For example, mental illness, bipolar, depression. Some of these terms are increasingly used to identify human states of mind and mood that might have been considered in the past as a normal part of human suffering. So how do we know when we are mentally ill or just suffering as humans?

Human suffering is usually a temporary condition, whereas mental illness can be more permanent. If someone close to you dies, it is normal to feel sad. But if you continue feeling sad years after it happened, you may be struggling with something more serious, like a depression. However, there is a very fine line between these two concepts because if you believe that you are mentally ill, or depressed, then you will be. Society might influence your own judgement and your doctor’s or counsellor’s judgement regarding whether you are effectively ill or just suffering as a human being.

As Summerfield states in Cross cultural perspectives on the medicalisation of human suffering, “the attitudes of wider society (which may change over time) shape what individual victims feel has been done to them and the vocabulary they use to describe this, whether or how they seek help, and their expectations of recovery.” If the wider society believes that a traumatised person must be carrying a heavy load that will impact negatively on their future life, that person will be prone to carry such a load and feel that negative impact. That would prevent them from seeing the other side of trauma, which normally brings growth and a deeper appreciation of life.

Many of the people that I work with are suffering due to the heavy load of living in an individualistic society that tends to label them and does not leave room for their human suffering and recovery. In some cultures, there are no words for depression. A person is part of a group, and the group will help and accept what is happening to the person. This person does not feel stigmatised and isolated, and eventually moves on. There is no stigma as suffering is considered a human characteristic dealt with in a community of human beings. In our society, there seems to be an expectation to be independent and happy. In such a society, is there a place for human suffering? Are we able to ask for help to family and friends? Are we too quick to label human suffering as mental illness, as something that needs fixing?

I wonder whether we need more communities to accompany each other in this journey that is our life and especially when we experience human suffering. I wonder whether we can accompany another person and let another person accompany us when our life seems like a challenge. In my opinion, counselling is a journey in which one person feels accompanied by a professional who is able to accept and understand human suffering. This acceptance and understanding makes the “sufferer” accept and understand his or her predicament and transform his or her life. Counselling is also a tool to help the “sufferer” learn how to find resources within themselves and in their communities so that when further suffering occurs, they would know how to cope with it.

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Differences between anger and rage


Anger, and related emotions, seem to be banned by our society. It appears that it is not good to be angry, to get angry, to be seen angry. However, we all get angry. It is a human emotion. All human emotions are useful, so anger must be useful too. Rage is also useful. They are both telling us a story, but they both tell a different story.

angerAnger and rage are teaching us about ourselves. They are trying to transmit a message that we need to hear to grow into more mature and whole human beings. Anger is teaching us about self-care. Rage is teaching us that our past needs healing.

Anger is a pure emotion. It comes to existence to protect our boundaries. Anger appears in the here-and-now and lasts for a few minutes. When self-care is threatened by a situation, anger will appear. It can be an aggressive anger or a passive anger. It can be directed to the person or the situation causing the anger or to innocent third parties. Learning how to say no, to assert your needs and to respect your boundaries is essential for your health and maturity. Anger can help you recognise when your boundaries are being trespassed.

Road rage rules with this infuriated driver shaking his fist

Road rage rules with this infuriated driver shaking his fist

Rage is a defence-mechanism used by infants when their environment does not meet their needs. It is pre-verbal, which means that it was created before one can speak. So, when you fly into a fit of rage against someone or something, you may not know the reasons behind. Rage is a disproportionate anger for the situation at hand. Rage is telling you that your needs were not met when you were a child, and you have unresolved emotions that need processing. When pure emotions are not processed in the here-and-now, they can be suppressed and later expressed in unhelpful ways. Rage is one of them.

Both anger and rage have very consistent physical bodily reactions: a twitching stomach, shallow and fast breathing, tense shoulders, a racing heart. If you become more aware of your body, you may feel these symptoms as they appear in your body, and recognise them as anger. When they are getting out of control, it is time for you to take time out from the situation you are in. Time for reflection is essential. Working with a counsellor can help you recognise your anger as it arises so that you can prevent damaging your close relationships. Counselling can also help you explore what unresolved issues may be causing your anger.

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3 positive qualities of anger

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading a very interesting book about anger: Anger, Rage and Relationship by Sue Parker Hall. The author has an easy way to explain complex ideas related to anger. She insists on the positive qualities of anger. Being a firm believer in the necessity of feeling and processing anger in a healthy way, her words have deeply resonated with me and inspired this post.


First, she makes a difference between anger and rage. She defines anger as a pure emotion characterized by a medium state of arousal and always related to the here-and-now. It is proportionate and expressed in a respectful way for a positive purpose. Rage is a defence mechanism that is created when the environment fails to support an individual’s physical or emotional needs. It is rage that will normally propel people to look for help with anger issues. These are the positive qualities of anger:

  1. Anger helps you to grieve – In the Kubler-Ross model that states the different stages of grief, anger is present. The five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Any loss in your life will make you feel angry. It is part of the process, so feel the anger and rest assured, it will not last. If it turns into rage, look for help with anger issues.
  2. Anger is an antidote to depression – Anger is a positive emotion that is letting us know that something is not right and something needs to get done about it. If it is left unprocessed, it may become rage or things are left undone, certain illnesses can ensue, including depression. Processing our anger and feeling supported to take action in our lives is one of the tasks of in-depth psychotherapy. Learning how to do this can be a life-changing experience into a more fulfilled life.
  3. Anger helps you keep your boundaries – If we are not able to identify and keep emotional boundaries, we can end up in dysfunctional, co-dependent relationships. In co-dependency, the self is abandoned on behalf of another. It is as if you have abandoned yourself and you will constantly feel abandoned or be afraid of being abandoned. If you are able to keep good emotional boundaries using your anger, you will be able to look after yourself, and you will be and feel looked after.

Anger is always a raw emotion that helps you to look after yourself. Observe this emotion and see what it is trying to tell you. Look for the action that you need to take and act consequently. If you frequently having outbursts of anger (rage), it may be necessary to see a counsellor or psychotherapist who will be able to navigate through your complex emotions and help you with anger issues.