Mark Latham is worried about a "fake anxiety epidemic". And he has a point.

Former Australian politician and leader of the Labor Party, Mark Latham, is a professional contrarian. And that’s to put it very kindly.

There are few women in the Australian media landscape who Latham hasn’t publicly denigrated, such as domestic violence activist Rosie Batty whose son was murdered by his father. Latham accused Batty of “exploiting her personal tragedy”.

His other targets have included Kristina Keneally, Wendy Harmer, Mia Freedman, Annabel Crabb, Leigh Sales, Anne Summers along with dozens more.

Most of the time, he is not a man who contributes meaningfully to public discourse.

POST CONTINUES BELOW: Are we living in the Age of Anxiety?

But this week, no doubt with the intention of stirring the pot, he might have said something worthy of discussion.

“Since when did anxiety (worrying too much) become a mental illness? Medicalisation of normality, with Lefties helping Big Pharma make big $$” he tweeted to his 12,000 followers on Sunday.

A few hours later he added, “True: fake “anxiety epidemic” used to justify PC language control via safe spaces/trigger warnings. Don’t fall for this crap.”

As Peter Schmigel, the former CEO of Lifeline, a non-profit organisation that provides 24-hour crisis support to Australians, put it – “Mark Latham is half right on the dangers of a ‘fake anxiety epidemic’.”

Schmigel wrote for The Huffington Post, “By allowing the term ‘mental illness’ to become overused and devoid of its real meaning, it could even – at a stretch – put lives at risk.”


This has less to do with some bizarre conspiracy between the Left and pharmaceutical companies, or individuals choosing to ‘fake anxiety’, and more to do with an enormous swing of the pendulum in a very short period of time.

Only a generation ago, one suffered from ‘nerves’, or they were tired, or they were stressed, or they suffered an ambiguous ‘nervous breakdown’. Mental illness was not a diagnosable condition in the way it is now.

Two generations ago, we lacked a vocabulary to talk about ‘anxiety’ or ‘depression’ and emotional struggles were met with shame or an unhelpful quip about “toughening up”.

This meant that people suffered silently. They did not seek treatment because there was no treatment to be sought. Historically, lives were lost because people could not talk about all-consuming sadness or anxiety so severe they couldn’t leave their house.

And then the pendulum swung.

The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) became an accepted addition to medical literature in the second half of the 20th century. We saw the introduction and widespread use of antidepressants. We saw the popularisation of therapy and psychiatry. RUOK? day is only eight years old, and services like Headspace – an initiative by the Australian government to address the mental health of young people – was only established in 2006.

Emma Stone is one of many celebrities who have spoken openly about their struggle with mental illness. Image via Getty.

Beyond Blue and The Black Dog Institute haven't even been around 20 years, and have made an enormous impact on how we validate the experience of mental illness.

These services have not only saved lives, but improved the quality of life for countless Australians.

And that can only be a good thing.


The pendulum swing was quick and forceful. And with it has come an over-diagnosis of mental illness, or as Latham puts it the "medicalisaton of normality".


For a brief moment, we may have lost sense of what constitutes the normal range of human emotions.

Before a student's HSC exams, it is normal to feel stressed.

After the break up of a marriage, it is normal to feel sad.

Prior to making a speech in front of a large group of people, it is normal to feel panic.

In a world punctuated by acts of terrorism, it is normal to feel fear.

Former politician Mark Latham thinks we're medicalising normality. Image via Getty.

That does not mean one is not entitled to seek treatment or assistance with these feelings.


It just means that these emotions do not make you mentally ill.

Sharon Begley writes for The Huffington Post, "the DSM fails to recognise that anxiety is normal and even beneficial in many situations". Feeling anxious can be a motivator to stay vigilant, and counter things in our lives that pose a threat.

Psychiatrist Dr. Allen Frances argues that the threshold for a disorder like Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is set "ridiculously low" meaning that we, "mislabel as mentally ill many people who are experiencing no more than the normal and expected worries of everyday life."

Symptoms for GAD include; feeling worried about a number of events or activities, finding it hard to stop worrying, feeling restless, feeling easily tired, feeling irritable and having trouble sleeping over a six month period.

None of these emotions are pleasant or desirable, but they are part of the fabric of everyday life.

That does not mean that GAD isn't real, or can't be debilitating for many Australians. If it is seriously impairing your ability to carry out tasks and is causing significant distress then one should unequivocally seek treatment.

You can listen to the latest episode of Mamamia Out Loud, here. 

But we must at the same time be conscious of pathologising any emotion that is not joy.

In Australia, we have one of the highest rates of antidepressant use in the world. No doubt, there are some people who are on medication that mightn't need to be, and people who are not on medication that ought to be.


And that's the danger in having a conversation about over-diagnosis.

No one wants to discourage people from seeking the help they need, or inspire guilt among sufferers. Mental illness is painfully real. But when everyone has a mental illness, no one has a mental illness.

Shmigel writes that we are quick to psychologically diagnose - from the comfort of our armchair - the criminal or the colleague or even Latham himself, which is firstly, inaccurate, and secondly, stigmatising to individuals who really do suffer from mental health conditions.

By lumping everyone: the offensive, the strange, the mean, the distant, the worried, the determined, the quiet, the focused and the violent all into the "mental health basket," we do ourselves an enormous disservice.

In order for our discussions around mental health to be meaningful, we must be sure to use the term carefully.

Or else a word like 'anxiety' will fall into oblivion.

If you, or a young person you know, is struggling with symptoms of mental illness please contact your local headspace centre here or chat to them online, here. If you are over the age of 25 and suffering from symptoms of mental illness please contact your local GP for a Mental Health Assessment Plan or call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.