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keobooks's avatar

Where does the line between "eccentric" and "mentally ill" cross?

Asked by keobooks (14276points) March 18th, 2013

I was just curious about where you draw the line between eccentricity and illness. I’ve seen people suggest to mentally ill people not to take their meds because doctors don’t appreciate eccentricity and want to eradicate any behavior that isn’t lockstep with the norm.

I love and value eccentricity myself – but mental illness is real. There are people who live substandard lives because they can’t function enough on a daily basis because their mental illness gets in the way.

One thing I try to wrap my head around is the business of people who hallucinate voices in their heads. In most contexts, we’d say they were mentally ill. But in some religious sects, they are blessed with hearing the voice of God.

How do we decide what is mental illness and what is simply eccentricity?

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21 Answers

augustlan's avatar

To me, the point at which eccentricity becomes mental illness is when it significantly and negatively impacts your quality of life or makes you a danger to yourself and/or others. Eccentricity strikes me as harmless, while mental illness is harm-ful.

rojo's avatar

I wonder the same thing, more often now than I used to. Mom sees and hears things in her dementia that, to me, do not exist. But, they are very real to her. Do they exist? To her, yes, to me, no. So, who is blind and who actually sees? So, what is reality? Is mine the same as hers? Is there only one? Question that haunts me daily.

JacobSDN's avatar

The difference is danger. When a person is a danger to themselves or others. In the case of not being able to take care of themselves or others. As in not being able to maintain their well being, or endanger the well being of others.

People in general have a bad concept of what is right or wrong with voices. People that talk to themselves are not necessarily crazy if they are actually talking to themselves. Most you can recall images of scientists that talk to themselves in front of chalkboard. The important difference is knowing the source of the voice, if they know the voice or more over the conversation is localized to their head or if they think it originates from the outside of their head.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Its’ simple.

If I’m well provided for in Grandfather’s will, he’s eccentric.

If I’m not mentioned in Grandfather’s will, he must be sick. Very very sick. And it’s my responsibility to take over all of his affairs. Best for everyone. Don’t you think?

pleiades's avatar

If you’re rich and weird, you’re eccentric. If you’re poor and strange, well you’re mentally ill then.

keobooks's avatar

I’m asking because I have a friend who has delusions and hallucinations. Her illness also affects her ability to write and speak in a meaningful way. Most of what she says and writes is gibberish and I assume her ability to listen and read are similarly affected. She has also frequently harmed herself because of her delusions. And yet, today someone thought it was clever to tell her that she shouldn’t take meds because the drug companies were evil and forcing people to conform. I don’t know how anyone could see her posts or listen to her talk—or know that she’s been hospitalized numerous times for harming herself—could say that she was being duped by drug companies or her family. She needs meds.

At the same time, I have another old friend who also suffers from delusions. He believes that he is a magical being from another dimension who accidentally fell into this universe. He believes that he has an unusual physiology that causes his hair to bleed if he cuts it. He can only eat certain foods because he can’t digest most others. He sometimess gets stuck in the bathroom because he’s trying to escape into the other dimension through the mirror. Yes—he’s nuts. But he holds down a job and pays his bills. He keeps in contact with his family and he has friends. Maybe medication would stop his delusions – but is it really hurting anything? He seems to be functioning at a somewhat normal level. Why bother forcing him to take meds? (Nobody has.. but many people have suggested that he should be taking them)

Both of these people are folk I’ve known since we were teenagers. They weren’t always like this, but at some point in their 20s, they zigged when everyone else zagged. Neither of them are close friends anymore, but I think about them often. It’s hard to have a serious friendship when someone has delusions.

Pandora's avatar

Its a matter of levels. Eccentric or strange is someone who will not use public restrooms and stop whatever they are doing to go home and use the toilet because they are usually filthy or they have a hard time going in a room where strangers can enter.

Mentally ill is someone who won’t use a public restroom no matter what because they are convinced there are killer diseases planted by the government to bring down the population.

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keobooks's avatar

My husband is a mental healthcare worker. His pat answer is “if your mental problems affect your daily living and you have a lower quality of life, then you have an illness. If you are not adversely affected, you’re not mentally ill.”

This bothered me because then two people could both have the same neurological problem that causes “craziness” but if one of them lived a lifestyle that accommodated them and they were happy, and the other person was miserable and lived in squalor, only ONE of them is considered mentally ill.

In all other illnesses, there’s no subjectivity like that. You don’t say someone has a broken leg only if it inconveniences them. People either have a cracked bone or they don’t. Diabetics have a universally unacceptable blood sugar level that can be measured.

I wondered what the armchair psych profession thought of this. In some ways it bothers me that my second friend I mentioned could be considered not mentally ill—even though he obviously has some weird delusions. But for whatever reason, he manages. I think he’s under-employed, and he’d probably get a girlfriend if he were a little less loopy. But he’s genuinely happy and satisfied with life. But still.. he’s got a few wires loose up there.

But I was wondering why it doesn’t bother me that person B doesn’t take meds, but it DID bother me that person A refuses medication. It’s probably because person A is angry and self destructive. Person A can’t hold a job or safely drive a car (she’s been in accidents from swerving from things in the road that weren’t there) Person A has to live at home with her parents who are unable to leave her unattended. Person A seems sad and confused that she can’t hold onto friendships from the past or participate in life.

Persons A and B have strongly contrasting lives and I was wondering—where do you guys think the line is? If there was a person C who had a mental stability between these two, how “crazy” would they have to be before you could say they were ill? How much should we interfere with someone’s life if they are happy but obviously living a lower quality life than they could be living if they weren’t thinking odd thoughts?

Silence04's avatar

There is no line between an eccentric personality and mental illness because they are not always related.

zenzen's avatar

I’d like to think I’m a bit eccentric; I’m probably just nuts.

KNOWITALL's avatar

My mother has bi-polar. She is extremely creative, bright and eccentric, always has been. When her mental illness affected her negatively through depression, it was time to get help.

She has stated that she feels her ‘creativity’ is stifled or muted on her meds, and that is heard often throughout the community, but meds are absolutely necessary for most mentally ill people that have been prescribed them. No one should go off meds for creative purposes!

As far as hearing voices, there is quite a difference in hearing God’s voice telling you to love thy neighbor, and evil voices telling you to harm yourself or others, or that you’re worthless, etc…

Sometimes I miss the eccentric mother I grew up with, but this mom (on meds) is much more stable, much less depressed, much better with money and many other positives. The mania was fun at times and very scary at others. She’s still no Betty Crocker though- lol

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

Delusions and hallucinations to me cannot be classified as eccentric. Also depression, anxiety, OCD; these are not in line with the definition of eccentric. Eccentric is quirky or kooky. All of the behaviours listed here sound more like mental illness/personality disorders to me.

Qipaogirl's avatar

I think that when behavior harms of disrupts your own life and the lives of others you have crossed the line from eccentric to mentally unwell. I had a friend who was always different, and his unique take on life was charming. Then, he gradually started doing things to make trouble for himself and others, purposefully trying to destroy his life, and by extension the lives of those that loved him. It turned out he had an imbalance of some sort, and when that was corrected, through what means I don’t know, the quirky, eccentric returned, destruction departed.

People that dance to their own tune are lovely. As long as no damage is caused, it’s all fine. They said Howard Hughes used to wear tissue boxes as shoes and refuse to cut his nails. Peculiar, but at the end of the day harming no one.

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

Yes, my quirky, eccentric daughter used to carry a baby’s toy telephone around in her book bag, filled the back seat of her car with crawl-balls, and she liked to wear an army hat to school. But then, she was a drama student, and all of the drama students were like that.

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

BTW – that same daughter is now a university grad and a forensic scientist.

Blondesjon's avatar

Smack dab in the middle of where I live.

Ron_C's avatar

I don’t believe that one size fits all and that the best definition of mental illness is from @keobooks husband. He said, “if your mental problems affect your daily living and you have a lower quality of life, then you have an illness. If you are not adversely affected, you’re not mentally ill.”

I’ve had a number of run-ins with “Healthcare Professionals” One of them put me in a locked ward with no warning. The other heard me out and simply changed medications.

Mental problems aren’t something you can splint and go about your business. Different people need different treatments. That’s why there are a few excellent mental health specialists and many that are sub-par.

So the from my reading of the answers say that if your “eccentricities” aren’t harming you or others then you’re just eccentric. If they cause personal, legal, or criminal actions then they’re symptoms of mental disease and need treatment.

LostInParadise's avatar

The general model we use for physical and mental health is that of normal versus abnormal. If some body part operates in a given range then it is working normally. In terms of mental health, this relates to Aristotle’s idea of avoiding extreme behavior. This model has some serious imperfections.

One obvious problem with this idea is that superior as well as inferior behavior fall outside of the norm and you end up having mediocrity and conformity as ideals. Another problem, especially with regard to mental health, is that we are multi-dimensional. A person can have a “defect” in one area that is an aid in another one. Artists tend to be disproportionately bipolar. The mathematician John Nash chose to live with his schizophrenia rather than take drugs because the drugs impaired his creativity. Yet another problem is the very idea of saying something is right just because most people are that way. In this sense, war is normal because it has been with us since before we were human, yet killing one another over ethnic and religious differences does not quite seem “normal.”

mattbrowne's avatar

Because the criteria for eccentricity do not match the criteria of ICD F00 – F99, see

SadieMartinPaul's avatar

Wealthy people are eccentric. The rest of us are mentally ill.

But, seriously, there’s a wide array of mental and behavioral disorders, and I’m not sure that “eccentricity” is among them. I believe that “eccentric” is a layman’s term to describe quirky, kooky, and odd—but generally harmless and benign—personality characteristics.

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