The Death of Mental Illness

The American Psychological Association is sponsoring a mental health blog party. Those of us writing in the genera have been invited to post an essay as a sign of solidarity and empowerment. I’m in favor of joining others with psychiatric histories to increase awareness and reduce stigma, but I also feel conflicted because I no longer believe ‘mental illness’ serves as a helpful concept.

Let me be clear: people sometimes behave in ways that look incomprehensible or even insane. Suicidal behavior, profoundly delusional speech, and irresistible compulsions are severe behavioral problems for individuals and society. No doubt they stem from cognitive activity and emotional tones that differ from average day-to-day awareness. These sorts of disordered conduct are clearly mental in origin, but do they qualify as diseases?

It seems to me that to define something as an illness implies that we can identify its absence. But this isn’t always easy. Take the example of suicide. Frank attempts on one’s own life lie at the extreme end of a spectrum of self-destructive thoughts and actions. Some of these get labelled as mental illness, and some don’t, but the distinction is rather arbitrary. I suspect a majority of the population would have to admit to moments of wondering if life is worth the effort, and to brief thoughts of ending it. They aren’t mentally ill just because they have moments of doubt, but where do we draw the line? How frequently or how seriously does a person have to question life’s value in order to be deemed sick? Or consider how a man with advanced emphysema who continues to smoke kills himself just as surely as a woman who takes an overdose of pills. But our culture doesn’t define the dying smoker’s senseless behavior as mental illness. What’s the difference? Does the fact that a man doesn’t admit to wanting to end his life relieve him of responsibility for doing so? I might even submit that the honestly suicidal woman is more rational and clear than the smoker steeped in denial who works toward the same end.

Or consider delusions. If a man believes the CIA has implanted thought control devices in his brain, everyone agrees he is out of touch with reality; we call this paranoid schizophrenia. But if a political leader proclaims that environmental exploitation isn’t a problem, even as the ecosystem destabilizes, no one considers her delusion a sign of mental illness. Director Tom Shadyac’s delightful documentary, I Am, makes a similar point about how many of the values our culture accepts as admirable are actually insane.

What about obsessions? Someone who won’t leave the house without checking the doors and windows two dozen times earns a diagnosis of OCD. But a billionaire obsessed with accumulating ever more money gets worshiped like a modern deity.

Furthermore, psychiatrists dismiss highly positive spiritual experiences as delusional and hallucinatory simply because such states hint at phenomena that aren’t endorsed by materialist science. When for a time I entered what seemed like profoundly awakened consciousness back in 2000, I wasn’t congratulated. The psychiatrists labelled my experience a ‘manic psychosis’ and started me on Haldol. I was too trusting to doubt them at the time, but now I wish they’d referred me to a spiritual leader rather than the psychiatric ward.

Obviously, people spiral into all kinds of behavioral crises and need help. Sometimes they recognize their need for assistance, and sometimes not. But whether a particular maladaptive conduct gets labelled as mental illness or not has to do with cultural values, not medical science. If there weren’t so much stigma, and so much risk of over-medication, it wouldn’t matter. But a life may be derailed for years (or forever) after the hammer of a major psychiatric diagnosis shatters a person’s reputation and self-image.

Tradition tells us that the seventh century Korean Buddist Wonhyo achieved enlightenment when following an exhausting journey without water he collapsed at night in a deep cavern. He found an ivory bowl while groping in the dark, and relished the sweet water it contained with a rush of relief. But when he arose the next morning he realized he had reclined in a tomb. The ‘bowl’ was the cap of a human skull, and he saw that he had not drunk clean water but a putrified soup of decay. At first nauseated and repulsed, he ‘awoke’ shortly afterward when he recognized how what he thought about reality (and not reality itself) so decisively determined his experience.

The conditions we label mental illness are a bit like that, only in reverse. In my case a lifetime of profound sadness, plus the ministrations of countless therapists and doctors, convinced me that I suffered from a severe psychological disease caused by my upbringing (which included early bereavement and severe child abuse) and genetic endowment (my depressed mother committed suicide). This view of myself had a major impact on my self esteem for much of my life, but I don’t believe it anymore. Now I understand that my sadness was a natural grieving reaction that may have been prolonged because no one validated my understandable sorrow after such a childhood.

No longer do I see my melancholy as the psychiatric equivalent of a putrefied skullcap. I now appreciate that life dealt me hardship early on, and I reacted normally. With time I overcame my grief, so that the traumatic past now stands as one of my most important teachers. Despite its ordeals, it led me to how I feel today: contented and more than a little knowledgeable about difficulty and its transcendence. The skullcap has transformed into the ivory bowl. Of course, neither perspective is actually ‘correct’ in any objective sense. But which picture I hold in mind has a huge impact on how I feel.

I’ve already sketched how psychiatrists diagnosed as mania an experience that in another time and place would have been viewed as a divinely granted spiritual awakening. What might have been seen as the ivory of grace became the corpse of mental illness.

How experiences are framed determines how we feel about ourselves and how others view us. Does the frame of mental illness serve the majority of patients? Or does it more often sap vitality and confidence? I read in many blogs of the relief people feel when doctors finally define their problems as diagnosable mental diseases. I remember feeling similarly myself when a lifetime of moodiness finally earned me the bipolar label. It felt so comforting to have my condition named and seemingly validated. But instead of decisively helpful treatments, the mental health system strung me along with decades of therapy and thousands of little pills, none of which improved my mood or outlook very much. It seems to me that if psychiatric diagnoses were truly valuable, they would guide clinicians to life-changing therapeutic choices. But how often do people diagnosed with ‘major mental illness’ leave the Psychiatry Department with an effective cure? Although they may feel transiently relieved, they and their family now must endure the burden of ‘knowing’ their minds are sick.

Only during the past few years, as I took up meditation and began exploring holistic methods of healing, did I begin to feel well. In fact, the change occurred rather quickly once I started meditating, tapered off the cocktail of psychiatric drugs, and quit hanging out at the mental health clinic. My once rock-solid conviction that my mind was ill gradually dissolved, and I began to wonder if I’m perhaps one of the healthier persons around, simply because I’ve worked so hard to achieve balance and peace. And if my ‘symptoms’ forced me into this growth, shouldn’t I be glad they afflicted me?

In many other cultures the kinds of malaise we now define as medico-psychiatric illnesses have been considered spiritual crises. In my own case, after fifty years of struggle with sadness and mood swings, I would have to say that such a view would have been far more helpful and more like an ivory bowl than what I heard during my decades within the mental health system’s well-meaning skullcap.

You may be dismissing all this as the ranting of a newly converted fundamentalist, but that’s not who I am. Although I believe spiritual transformation finally solved the problems that clinical psychology could not, I don’t hold any particular religious belief or adhere to any specific tradition. I don’t presume to know the nature of God or even to be sure of its existence. My own recovery convinces me that it is possible to find a ‘spiritual’ cure without abandoning reason or science. Not to mention that modern physical theory describes reality in terms that sound essentially mystical.

In any event, a spiritual approach to mental wellness has little to do with ideas about God or the nature of reality. It has everything to do with how we see ourselves. If we think we are fragile and isolated personalities adrift among unfriendly and predatory human apes, we are likely to feel and act badly. On the other hand, if we see ourselves as sacred beings enmeshed in a grand tapestry of life and mutual interdependence, we feel uplifted and at peace. Which view is ‘correct?’ I don’t believe anyone can say. But I am utterly convinced that embracing the latter view is healthier than clinging to the former.

I’m not advocating the end of psychotherapy or the closure of mental health clinics. In fact, I like the phrase ‘mental health.’ What I’m suggesting, however, is that we replace the DSM‘s ‘mental disorders’ paradigm with something different. The Positive Psychology movement is a great idea. A catalog of spiritual practices might also help. But while the biomedical doctrine of ‘mental illness’ caters nicely to pharmaceutical interests, it serves patients poorly. Let’s give the skullcap a nice burial, and start over with some more elegant and uplifting concepts.


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The Death of Mental Illness — 7 Comments

  1. In yourApril 9th post WE AREALL MENTALLY ILL you said that “True sanity would require behavior that was consistantly sustainable on a global scale and supportive on a local one. It would also be unatainable.”
    This made me think: Which odd behaviors are mental illness and which ones simply hormonal imbalances or caused by stress? I agree with your statement that “To have a mind is to have a mental illness.” What are we using for a yardstick here?

  2. Mary–
    I was wondering if anyone would point out the apparent contradiction between “We Are All Mentally Ill,” which says everyone has a mental health problem and “The Death of Mental Illness,” which sort of says no one does. But of course the two posts make more or less the same point: dysfunction is rampant but it may or may not get called mental illness. Here my emphasis is on the way the term “mental illness” affects people, both those diagnosed and the attitudes of society. Why should only some be labelled “ill” when almost all moderns and our whole culture are off the rails? Thanks for the comment.

  3. Great writing, Will…
    “My once rock-solid conviction that my mind was ill gradually dissolved, and I began to wonder if I’m perhaps one of the healthier persons around, simply because I’ve worked so hard to achieve balance and peace.”
    Balance and peace is key to good mental health, and excuse me for correcting you. I believe it isn’t “dissolving” the mental rocks clogging up neuronal networks; it’s more like a constant “chipping” away at the road blocks (psych drugs, faulty thought patterns, etc.) that keep us from building new pathways towards growth. It’s like a traffic jam on the 5, when there is an accident. Until the accident is cleaned up, nobody is going anywhere.
    I love the FACT science has discovered our minds are plastic. The mind still has the capacity to grow and learn after childhood. It was once thought our brains only had a certain number of neurons, and plasticity was saved for the young. We now know the brain is capable of making fresh neuronal pathways at any age. Psychologists should encourage the continued building of pathways no matter the difficulty. However, not all patients are like you, Will. Maybe they don’t want to work, and a pill will be their answer.
    There’s a song that says, “There’s a pill for that”. I do believe some psych drugs are helpful, but too many can be harmful and and can be the “rocks” that block the way to growth and happiness.
    I will be doing my Psych Rotation in a few months. I’m sure I will learn a lot. I’m a little nervous about it actually…Laurie

  4. Laurie–

    OK, I’ll buy ‘chipping away’ as a useful metaphor. Recovery does take continued work on all those many obstructions in the road.

    And yes, I am all too aware that not everyone can or will make the same progress as me. Others in my family are cases in point, but I’ve also known many friends and patients who’ve been unable to muster the necessary determination and faith. This failure to mature isn’t characteristic only of the formally “mentally ill” of course; we see signs of it everywhere.
    On the other hand, it doesn’t follow that people unable to take up what I’m calling a spiritual path will therefore benefit from drugs. Probably medications can help in some acute cases, but “overuse” doesn’t begin to cover how excessively these agents are prescribed given the minimal evidence for their efficacy and abundant proof of their harmfulness. If you haven’t already done so, and as a rising physician, you should definitely read Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic. However, I would suggest waiting until after your psych rotation. Read it beforehand and you might feel too conflicted participating in the ward routine.
    I agree with you that neuroplasticity gives us reason to hope and to always continue trying. However, it wasn’t until earlier generations of neuroscientists declared the adult brain incapable of neuronal regeneration that the concept was even necessary. Despite the phrase about old dogs and new tricks, within spiritual traditions there has ever been recognition that people can awaken and mature even late in life or on their deathbeds. So the much touted discovery of neuroplasticity isn’t so much a brilliant scientific finding as a kind of corrective for past mistakes. I realize this cynical view is a tad unfair to all those hardworking neuroscientists, but it grows out of the realizations expressed in an earlier post (Computers of Flesh?) Neuroscience has greatly informed our understanding of human brains, but has not taught us nearly so much about human nature, which was already fairly well understood.
    Thanks so much for commenting.

  5. Will…
    I am in school to become a nurse;) I feel my life has been preparing me for this course. I look forward to the many experiences the medical field affords.
    Prescription drugs;/ I’m speechless. It’s a sad state of affairs.

  6. Laurie–

    My wife is a nurse. I have tremendous respect for the profession. Good for you.


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