I have recently communicated with a man that claims that “there is no such thing as mental illness.” I asked him for literature that explains his view. He gave Dave Hunt’s and Thomas S. Szasz’s work as examples. Having experienced Severe Mental Illness myself and recovered (by medication and improved thinking strategies) I felt I might be able to add something to this discussion.
First a disclaimer: I was excited and scared when the man said, “There is no such thing as mental illness.” Excited because I may learn something new and be freed from my meds forever, scared because I may be blamed once again that what I experience is my own fault by people who claim to know more than they really know. (See Job’s experience with his well-meaning friends).
Szasz in The Myth of Mental Illness says that there are diseases, such as
syphilis of the brain or delirious conditions-intoxications, for instance — in which persons are known to manifest various peculiarities or disorders of thinking and behavior. Correctly speaking, however, these are diseases of the brain, not of the mind. (1)
Szasz admits there are “various peculiarities or disorders of thinking and behavior.” This is what I think of when I currently hear the term “mental illness” being used. Szasz also asserts that “these are diseases of the brain, not of the mind.” I agree. Szasz admits that the malfunctioning brain influences the mind and “disorders of thinking” result.
In my imperfect remembrance of Lifetime Guarantee, Bill Gillham makes the claim that because the Bible says our mind goes to heaven and our brain goes to the grave, our brain is only an interface between our eternal mind and our temporary experience of physical reality. I would like to suggest that what we label “mental illness” can be caused by the brain not working correctly; or the mind not working correctly; or both not working correctly thereby affecting each other.
What if the brain is not working correctly? Trauma during early childhood can cause the brain to develop abnormally. A lifetime of fear and risky behavior can result. The brain doesn’t process information correctly, giving the mind inaccurate data, the mind’s decisions are then skewed and results in unhealthy behavior.
What if the mind is not working correctly? Ineffective thinking strategies can be inherited from Adam or be learned during childhood (unforgiveness, gossip, revenge, anger, hate, greed and more) causing frustration, more anger, withdrawal, hopelessness and many other self-defeating thoughts and behaviors.
And what if both the mind and the brain are not working correctly and negatively influencing each other? When I experienced intense sustained stress, shame and I suppressed invalidated anger (ineffective thinking strategies) for months, it was followed by clinical depression, paranoia and schizophrenia (or the brain not working correctly).
The first question has a physical component (and can be corrected with intense therapy: see Nancy Thomas, Dandelion on my pillow, butcher knife underneath), the second question requires the renewing of our mind by surrendering to Jesus and thinking the way he thinks. The last problem is my problem.
Around age eighteen I had no passionate goals of my own. Having lived my life to get good grades to please my mom and seldom allowed to make my own decisions except to please others, I was suddenly lost when my mom did not give me direction on what she wanted me to do. I was told I could go to any college I wanted, where did I want to go? I said I wanted to go to a local School of Design. I was told I wouldn’t be allowed to go to this School of Design (no secure job prospects), but I could go where ever I wanted to go, so where did I want to go? I said I wanted to go to school in Cincinnati for aerospace design (out of state, too expensive). No. So where did I want to go? I wanted to go to Western and live in the dorms (I was told my grades weren’t high enough to win scholarships (3.65) so it was my fault there was not enough money). No. As fall approached my mom (the person I had spent my life trying to please) was disgusted with my lack of progress and decided to take over (this action was now what I was familiar with). I would go to Western and live with my uncle and aunt (I was grateful but it was not what I dreamed).
At Western I isolated myself and was hyper-focused on getting A’s. I was having emotional hallucinations but did not realize that was what it was. I interacted with some high school buddies once and felt I was thinking slower than them. I made a bad report concerning my friends behavior (unwarranted) and reaped trouble that shook me. I realized I did not have what I needed to make life work. I called my mom and she ordered me home.
At this point I felt I needed to “break away” from my parents, particularly my mom’s control. I had no friends to go to, no skills with which to earn a living and not enough courage to simply leave into the unknown. I acquiesced. I attended the community college in the Fall semester, filled with shame that I had failed at going to college and being on my own.
I spiraled down until I had the thought that everything was work. There was nothing enjoyable. I was clinically depressed but did not know it at the time. Small decisions became impossible to make. I was scared of my thinking. I told strangers I was crazy. They laughed at me. I told my dad what I had done. He told me that that was stupid and went back to reading his paper. I dragged my shoe on the ground while riding my motorcycle. My mom shamed me implying more concern with the shoe than what would cause me to ruin it. These were my cries for help. But I didn’t know it, and no one else did either.
My dad told me to make like a rubber band and snap out of it. My mom, who had worked at the local mental hospital as an nurses’ aid, tried to shame me into mental health (she communicated that I should be ashamed of who I was now). When I didn’t respond to that she tried to scare me into mental health (with stories of “crazy” people and the negative things that happen to them).
I failed at life for ten years until God gave me the thought: What would happen if I took the meds the way I was supposed to, would they help? I had never thought of that before. I started taking the meds regularly. I spiraled up enough to be able to clearly hear and accept Jesus and follow him. My mind has been renewing for the last 30 years but my brain still malfunctions without the medication.
If I miss my meds for 1 or 2 days my sweet wife sounds to me like she is being mean-spirited, sarcastic and evil. I have to think outside reality, remember that my wife is not like that, and go and take my meds and wait. My wife becomes sweet again as the meds begin to work (She was always sweet, but my experience of her was skewed by a malfunctioning brain).
At 18 the ineffective thinking strategies of my mind became so severe that they influenced the proper functioning of my brain, producing depression. At 27 medication enabled my brain to function more effectively again and that allowed me to gain healthy thinking strategies through a relationship with Jesus. Now, 30 years later, I have a healthy mind, but it can be influenced by paranoia, depression and schizophrenia when my brain is not properly medicated.
In the end, Szasz, in The Myth of Mental Illness, does not help me in my life experience as a person dealing with mind/brain dysfunction. He is concerned with whether the mind (not the brain) can be diseased (not ineffective) in the first part of his paper. Given the tremendous amount of suffering involved concerning this subject Szasz’s debate doesn’t matter to me. In the second part, he denies that symptoms (calling oneself Napoleon) indicate a need for concern for that person’s well-being. Having worked with over one hundred mentally ill people, I believe Szasz once again, misses the point. If someone tells me they are Napoleon, I will care enough to investigate their thinking further.
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and if it waddles like a duck, and quacks like a duck, its a duck. To me, Szasz misses the point, and is misleading in his statements. But then, why would anyone listen to me over him?
I’m mentally ill, right?
(There was also a spiritual parallel to this story going on alongside of it the whole time. But that is for another post. (Or, check out “What is it like to be mentally ill?” in the May 2013 archives of this blog).
(1) Classics in the History of Psychology; An internet resource developed by Christopher D. Green, York University, Toronto, Ontario; ISSN 1492-3713; The Myth of Mental Illness, By Thomas S. Szasz (1960); First published in American Psychologist, 15, 113-118. Posted January 2002