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Social marketing is a big buzzword (buzzphrase?) in health care these days. The Spare Change blog I read to help keep up with the field defines it this way: “Applying marketing principles to promoting health and social issues and bringing about positive behavior change.” Setting aside the fact that eating right and exercising more makes us feel better and live healthier, we can debate how to fund the health care system until Michael Moore’s blue in the face, but if we collectively don’t do something about lifestyle-related illnesses, no decent system’s going to be sustainable.

Anyway, Nedra Weinreich of Spare Change linked to a post from a blogger named Jeff Harrell, who revealed his struggles with Borderline Personality Disorder. Weinreich points out that the post and the comments are, in effect, helping create social change.

Blogging is an incredibly powerful way to connect with other people — whether you are the blogger or the reader. When a blogger has built a following of people who read his or her words regularly, a bond can form that goes beyond the content of the blog posts, providing an instant support group. Others who have never heard of the problem get to learn about it vicariously and perhaps realize that someone they know might be affected, and those who suffer from it themselves can see that they are not alone. One blog post could change someone’s life.

I got another takeaway out of this, though, after reading Jeff’s original post and some of the comments that followed. There were supportive comments and a few negative “you’re an attention whore” comments, but what got to me were the “it’s no big deal” kind of comments. Comments dismissing the experience of living with a mental illness, because none of us are “normal” anyway. Comments like “Of course you have a disconnect from reality, you’re a writer! Situation normal.”

These are comments intended to be helpful and supportive, from people who mean well. But they’re breathtakingly ignorant. Someone who’s writing about his experiences living through hell, about relationships and career and finances that have been decimated by a defect in his brain, does not need to be told “no biggie; we’re all abnormal.” It’s like telling someone who has cancer “no big deal; we all have abnormal cells.”

But while “normal” is definitely a questionable term — who really feels that word describes them? — deciding how someone else should feel about their mental illness, or abusive parent, or health concerns, or other deeply personal challenge serves to further isolate people who are often already socially isolated because of it. Why do we need to whitewash other people’s problems, often at the same time we’re stewing over our own? Do we all so desperately need to be the same?

Harrell is not a lesser human being for having Borderline Personality Disorder, but neither is he facing the same difficulties as me, or you, or any neurotic writer, or every other human being.

I think the world would be a more compassionate and insightful place if we could resist the temptation to normalize what isn’t the norm, resist the urge to demonize the darker side of humanity, and work on a little empathy that covers a range of human experience.