It seems there is a psychiatric diagnosis for every personality type in existence, every reaction to the stresses of life, and every behavior that the government finds inconvenient. While I believe there is some benefit to understanding your own personal idiosyncrasies, I am skeptical of the industry and culture that have burgeoned around the concept of mental illness. There are signs that such diagnoses and treatments frequently do more harm than good; yet to question those in power on the subject, or to suggest that people may not need psychological experts or drugs, is akin to religious heresy and gets a person labeled as uncompassionate. But how can it be uncompassionate to want people to break free from unnecessary chains?
One main problem is the designation of “mental.” There are huge problems in isolating factors in any bodily malfunction, even when there are things to be measured, such as blood levels of this or that, or electrical signals. Diagnosing mental illness is much less quantifiable. Any obvious physical condition that leads to brain function being compromised is not technically mental illness. Some people exhibit behavior that is distinctly beyond being a matter of self-control, such as undeniable autism or elderly senility. Even without knowing exactly what is causing it, most people would agree that it is due to a physical problem. (Read here to see the new diagnoses they are coming up with!)
Measuring chemicals in the brain has it’s complications, too. If anyone tells you they know what is going on in the brain, they are lying or hugely misguided. The brain remains a mystery, like trying to define what makes each of us a unique individual. Add in that there are many reasons to mistrust any research results (lack of good sample, uncontrollable factors, source of funding and incentive to do research, basic assumptions of researchers, manipulation of data) and one wonders how things are so blatantly declared as facts. Only to be altered next year. Aren’t we now finally hearing that it might actually be good for elderly people to have higher blood pressure, and that cholesterol is probably not the culprit it was proclaimed to be? Do the chemicals in our brains change before or after our feelings and attitudes?
For what it’s worth, I am a nurse, with a bachelor of science degree in nursing from UCLA. I mention that cautiously because I think anyone can educate themselves about the human body and study ways to help those (including themselves) who might be struggling with disease states. Whether through standard channels of academia or by self-education, it all requires sifting through misinformation and using common sense. I don’t think anyone is more prepared to do this because of government laws about licensing. No, I am not a “psychology” nurse. I didn’t see anything in my exposure to psychiatric services (classes, text books, professors, clinicians, and clinical rotations) to give me any confidence in the then-current and now-bloated psychology complex. I may have seen some people trying to help, but I saw many people full of their own wisdom or just parroting what was accepted. I saw hurting people condemned to a diagnosis. I saw the weakness of research and peer review. They were not being helped to overcome. Only “receiving treatment” with the mindset of them having no hope of recovery.
Hopefully by now, you have a sense that I don’t say any of this in harsh judgement of those struggling with the hardships of life. Truth is, I could probably, based on some of my behaviors and limits, be “diagnosed” with a number of “mental” illnesses. I have faced severe depression, been in pain that no one could identify, experienced the blow of unexpected hatred of those I trusted, been paralyzed by fear (I’ll explain later), and suffered the death of a child. I like all my silverware in the drawer stacked just so, but can be a whirlwind of distracted activity. I frequently feel like crying when grocery shopping because I see a mom with little kids and mine are all grown. I get hormonal rushes certain times of the month that leave me extremely agitated and could be used to power the western United States. But, you see, I think I am normal. I think all of these experiences are normal to life. I go along for the ride and don’t worry too much about it. I know the feelings can be deep and others may think I’m weird, but there is no diagnosis that is going to make it easier to handle life.
There may sometimes be a need to problem solve habits that affect my emotional state.
- Am I getting enough sleep? (I’m doing better these days.)
- Am I getting some exercise? (I love to exercise, but sometimes I still have to have a routine to help me.)
- Am I eating a nutritional diet? (that includes chocolate, butter, and bacon, by the way)
- Am I trying to do too many things in too short of time? (the answer to that is almost eternally yes…sigh)
- Am I attempting to have a good attitude? (This is a choice.)
- Am I nurturing relationships to the best of my ability?
- Am I seeking out friendships with people who want the best for me and have unselfish perspectives? (I have a few great friends!)
- Am I finding ways to express my concerns while looking for positive solutions and not wallowing in self-pity?
- Am I being responsible? (Some guilt is deserved, so I need to deal with it.)
The diagnose-a-mental-illness model makes people dependent in the worst sort of way. We are all social to one extent or another (I do so get a kick out of hermits being interviewed), and depend on one another. However, those we depend on should:
- Be in a real relationship with us.
- Have a goal of helping us to be the best we can be.
- Not be asking us for money in order to be our friend.
Anyone who is selling us something should be continually suspect! They may sincerely believe in their product or service. They may say they want to help you. How is the psychiatrist and the drug company really any different that the Coca Cola company? It is not bad to make money (make a living, earn a profit), but the consumer assumes the benevolence of the seller at his own risk.
What good parent really thinks it is a good idea to encourage a child to feel sorry for themselves? What good friend lets you continue with a selfish bad attitude? What can another person or drug really do to make any of us “feel better” about ourselves? All the compliments and positive input in the world don’t help nearly as well as being encouraged to just get out there and live life. So, you are afraid of heights? Maybe you panic in groups? Possibly you get incredible stomach cramps when people mistakenly tell you to relax, when what you need to do is sing or dance? The list is endless. We all have our fears and challenges. We all have feelings that threaten to overwhelm us. I’ve even seen the apparently stable introverts in my life struggle mightily, but to the outsider such people seem like rocks.
The dark side of this mental illness popularity, is that bad things that people do are now just classified as “mental illness.” “He was a psychopath.” “She was unstable.” There is a refusal to see the responsibility in the choices individuals make. There is a denial of the wickedness that exists. Relabeling it enables people to pretend it is not part of the human condition. It is always harder to deal with a problem if it can’t be admitted.
I’m not saying I know all the answers. That would be a silly claim. However, it doesn’t take an expert to understand that feelings are temporary sensations. Behaviors are choices. Even in the face of exhaustion and hunger, we have the power to override the path of least resistance. The old adage about choosing to respond instead of just giving into reaction is pretty helpful. Neither feelings nor behaviors are an illness. When the government and its political medical boards come in and begin categorizing our feelings and behaviors, something is bound to go wrong with the process and the outcome.
If you are waiting to hear how I was paralyzed by fear, here is the story:
My husband and I had taken a trip to Zambia (Africa), to work on an orphanage out in the wild beyond Livingstone. Those who ran the orphanage told us of all the poisonous snakes in the area. Day after day, someone would display a venomous snake they had killed in their doorway, from small cobra to large pit viper. The native Zambians gave testimony after testimony about being grateful for not being bitten by a snake while on their way to work or if out past dark. There was at least one common snake that was known to aggressively hunt people. We were also told that there were many men in the area who would just as soon kill us for our shoes if we stayed out after dark. Then, one late afternoon, my husband went to play soccer with some of the locals. He was not back to our quarters when the sun was just falling below the horizon.
The small complex we were staying at was surrounded by all that sort of African bush you see in nature shows. I had seen packs of baboons wandering around and been advised that they behaved like wolves. And yes, they were always hungry. I might have thought the Americans who lived there were just trying to scare me, but the locals seemed genuinely concerned about all the animals, including elephant tramplings at night. Plus, I saw the baboons’ teeth.
The man we were staying with showed absolutely no concern about my husband’s absence, which didn’t surprise me, because he had already made it very clear that he was not going to be mistaken for being overly nice. The couple who were orphanage directors followed his lead. The two people we had traveled with to Zambia were women older than me, in less than peak physical condition. So, I was left to figure out if I should go look for my husband’s body. It may be helpful to know that this was about 2 years after one of our daughters had died.
As I walked the wide, dusty paths between the buildings, a couple groups of local men were obviously leering at me, laughing. I looked down and saw that the dust was now riddled with snake tracks that had not been there for long, otherwise they would have been obliterated by the foot traffic of the day. I widened the circle of my search slightly, but my heart was beginning to skip beats and I was having trouble breathing. In extreme guilt, I abandoned my search and went back into the main building, and straight to our bedroom. There I sat motionless on the edge of the bed, with incoherent, but violent thoughts ramming themselves around in my skull. I don’t know how long I sat there, but it was totally pitch black when my husband returned and found me there.
He, of course, was very apologetic at causing me concern. However, that didn’t help the state I was in. I simply did not have the ability to move or speak beyond my initial weak, “okay.” I would say it might have been labeled catatonic shock. He had to literally pick me up and turn me sideways, to lay me down to sleep. Fortunately, sleep is what I did. It was like my whole body just turned completely off. Except my heart and lungs obviously kept working.
The next day, I was my husband’s shadow. I did not go spend time with the orphanage kids like I had before. He made sure I had comfortable places to sit, then encouraged my to try to sing while he worked. It took a while, but I finally managed. The unfeeling host walked by at one point and said that was the best thing he had seen and heard in a while, so maybe he wasn’t as bad as I thought.
Nothing like that has happened to me since, although I still get a sensation in my heart when I remember the events. Does that mean I have a mental illness? I think it means that I was experiencing stress stacked upon stress, and my mind and body were coping as best they could at the moment. We do have limits. Acknowledging those limits, or testing them, or even readjusting them, does not mean we are deranged. I did, after all, go wading in a crocodile river just this past January. I guess in some people’s minds that probably makes me crazy, but in other’s it means I’ve “made progress.” Really, though, it doesn’t matter what other people think. It matters that I am living life, surfing the ups and floating the downs as best I can, laughing or crying when I need to. All without any psychological treatment.
For more in depth review of the subject of mental illness, I recommend this article, The Myth of Mental Illness, but to follow it up, since even it falls in the trap of listing vaccines as evidence of good science, here are a couple of articles about The Flawed Science and Failures of Mass Vaccination.
This undercover research project by a psychiatrist was published in 1973. It is interesting on many levels, and although done 40 years ago, there is good reason to wonder how much has changed. We seem a society still very attached to labels and the insinuations of a diagnosis. One things that particularly rings true, is that when I was working my psych rotation during nursing school, at every location the staff were happy that a “someone” was available to spend time with the patients…