The Can Collector’s Club: Clarifying Where Mental Health Begins

James Schroeder, PhD
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In 1980, my father started the Can Collector’s Club (CCC).  I was 2 years old.  As the story goes, it was my mother’s brainchild, but dad quickly took ahold of the idea with his entrepreneurial spirit.  Some people thought he had lost his mind.  Some still do.  But the purpose of the CCC was simple.  Convince family and friends to turn aluminum cans into him so that he could use the money from recycling to support our college fund.  And clean up the environment.

Quickly, the CCC turned into an annual contest, with those collecting the most cans awarded prizes at a fiscal (can) year-end party that featured balloon tosses, a self-indulgent speech by the director himself (often in costume), and a cast of characters set on taking irreverence to a whole new level.  As the years passed with semi-annual newsletters, and the number of cans grew, so did the stories, enough so that one day, Jim Schroeder (Sr.), ended up on the front page of CNN.com (Original News story from WTVW Evansville, Ind., November 7, 2008).

Midst the eccentricities and obsessiveness at times, though, my father remained ever conscious of his goals.  Even his arguments grew more coherent as the dollars amassed and the number of families involved grew.  And ever conscientious of his children’s needs and the community of people that rallied around this cause, he began to look at other ways to have a positive effect on those who needed it most.

So it is when it comes to mental health.  As DSM-5 tops out at a whopping 947 pages, and the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) promises millions of dollars in search of biological causes for mental conditions, something seems lost in trying to really understand where mental health really begins.  Mental health is not the absence of impairing, abnormal, or distressing symptoms any more than summer is the absence of ice, snow, and cold.  Summer is a period of great growth just as we humans are beings of tremendous possibility.  But in order to be mentally healthy, three things must be present:  consciousness, coherence, and conscientiousness.  By nature, these mind states are active processes and apply to both our internal experiences and our external behaviors.

Consciousness is not just a dynamic awareness of our thoughts and feelings, but it is an acute understanding and concern of our circumstances, now and at other times.  Put more simply, it is a person’s ability to take in their situation fully in order to best determine their next course of action.  Coherence is the state of being logical, consistent, and congruent with what exists around us.  It does not disregard our emotional state, but it mandates that the arguments we make be based on reasonable facts, ideas, and/or beliefs.  Conscientiousness signifies that what we do is right and just, and that our actions are principled.  It serves as our link to others, in that we consider how they are affected by our behaviors.

For arguments sake, take any diagnosed mental condition, and you will find that each of these three critical factors are at play.  When we are depressed, we become less conscious to the world around us, our beliefs become irrational, and self-absorption takes hold.  When we cannot concentrate, we tend to only focus on loosely connected details, our thoughts become disjointed and confusing, and we seek to satisfy the need that lies right in front of us.

But this article is not about pathology.  It is about health.  It is why exercise works so well to improve mental health.  When you are physically fit, your mind becomes more conscious to what is going on.  With this, comes an opportunity to step outside your closed box and consider what you and others may see and need.  It is why cognitive-behavioral therapy works.  It seeks to take irrational beliefs and put them into a clearer, more realistic context.  The belief that “Everyone hates me” is no more coherent than the grandiose idea that “Everyone loves me.”  It is why regular volunteering has long been known to have lasting positive psychological effects on the volunteer.  We become conscientious regarding the fact that we are not the only one with a tough life.

So before we get so entangled in mental dysfunction, maybe we need to spend some more time considering what happens when we really do function.  In the process, we may find that stigma reduces, conversations become more productive, and we all begin to realize that your mind and my mind need to focus on developing the same critical properties.  And if anything or anyone tries to convince you that a mobile device or a pill can take the place of these things, be very, very cautious.  Nothing can take their place, and sometimes, that which promises to relieve you can leave you more scattered and disjointed than before.

By the way, for those who are curious, the CCC is in its 34th year running.  This past year, a record number of families (60) participated.  Now that all of my siblings have graduated college, 100% of the proceeds (including that from my father’s penny and nickel clubs) go to a mission in Haiti, where my father can’t wait to go every year to see the beautiful, shining faces of those kids he loves.  His vision, and that of my mother’s, remains just as conscious, coherent, and conscientious as ever.  And now, a new generation has gotten into the mix, as my kids and their cousins scramble over wooded banks and scour sidewalks for cans amid the questioning gazes of onlookers, who can only wonder just what possesses those kids to do such a thing.

9 COMMENTS

  1. “Consciousness…is a person’s ability to take in their situation fully in order to best determine their next course of action. Coherence is the state of being logical, consistent, and congruent with what exists around us. It does not disregard our emotional state, but it mandates that the arguments we make be based on reasonable facts, ideas, and/or beliefs.”

    With all due respect, James, I feel this explanation is a bit askew, given that reality is multi-dimension, rather than linear. “What exists around us” is up to anyone to determine, based on what they perceive, which, in turn, is based on a variety of factors that come together at that point in time. It’s all so highly individualized, aka Rashomon.

    “While it does not disregard our emotional state” makes our emotions sound secondary to our thoughts, and I’d argue that emotions are really primary. Naturally, where we focus our thoughts determine what we feel, and we can choose where to focus. So by choosing wisely and deliberately, we can make ourselves feel good, or at least better than terrible.

    Feelings make up our inner guidance, and they are what really lead us to the next step, not cognition. Going by ‘brain consciousness’ is what has led us down such a bleak path, as it leaves out the most vital information: “How do you feel at present, and what steps would you take to feel better?” would, to my mind, be the universal question to ask for the purpose of healing.
    What may appear logical and consistent to one person can feel illogical and inconsistent to another. I believe this is universal. Moreover, an observer is more likely to interpret someone through their own filter—we all have them—which imposes onto the observed a different framework of reality than their own.

    I think this is one of the grave errors that psychotherapists commit chronically, which is terribly unfair and demeaning to the client, not to mention confusing as hell to one’s mind. These criteria simply lead to misunderstandings and worse yet, unfounded judgments. Just because a person’s behavior, beliefs or ideas don’t make sense to the observer does not necessarily mean that the observed is nonsensical or irrational.

    Beliefs are beliefs, and we create our reality from beliefs, which manifest as we each take our individual journeys through life. I really don’t think there is such a thing as “an unreasonable belief,” since we all have the right to choose what it is we believe. We really do have free will, here—it is our creativity in action–and often, the clash is due to stringent cultural norms that offer no permission for individuality or diversity. That is where stigma comes from—a society imposing its belief norms on another, and demeaning, labeling, or marginalizing them when their belief is not consistent with the norm.

    “It is why cognitive-behavioral therapy works. It seeks to take irrational beliefs and put them into a clearer, more realistic context.”

    Gotta disagree with you, here. CBT programs a person’s mind to think the way society thinks, advocating group think, as per cultural norms. I think it’s highly manipulative, and not in a good way. The norm is not healthy, I think we all agree about that by now, at least most of us do. So isn’t it time to open our hearts and minds to new ways of thinking?

    Who’s to say what is irrational or not? A therapist? I’ve known plenty of therapists that seemed irrational to me. Then again, going by my own argument, here, who am I to say?

    In any event, I would never allow myself to internalize another’s judgment of my beliefs. That’s my reality, and I enjoy it thoroughly. It also evolves over time, based on what I experience in life as I go along.

    It was only when I allowed therapists to confuse me by trying to convince me that my thoughts are off, my beliefs are irrational, and my feelings are not valid that I became gravely ill. I call it ‘therapy brain,’ and I had a helluva time healing that.

    Fortunately, I discovered that neurons can be re-directed to a comfortable flow, in synch with who I am, allowing me to become aligned with my sense of Self. Brought ease and clarity into my thinking, and it relaxed my heart and clarified my feelings a great deal, allowing me to take my inner guidance while creating and living my life to my heart’s content.

    Most importantly, I learned to discern my voice from the external judgment and opinions of others, who may not be aligned with my beliefs, which is fine. Many are, and those are the ones to whom I gravitate for coherency and community support.

  2. I have often felt like I was drowning in my diagnosis. It’s hard to feel comfortable in groups without the sinking suspicion that they know you don’t belong. A few years ago, I really didn’t think I was going to live through that fall… My husband brought home a box turtle to amuse me and show the cats. It was meant to be a fifteen minute visit, but having no experience with reptiles, I soon discovered he was a very sick creature. Half starved, eyes swollen shut, larvae in his skin, a respiratory infection, and the people who had last held him hostage had laquered his shell in nailpolish. (which would have allowed it to be absorbed into his bloodstream.) I called every group I knew, and no one would take him, but I also knew he would die if I set him free. We survived that fall together, and what I realized (and the reason for my comment) that if a turtle, an animal given to OCD’s, panic attacks, stress, anxiety , and one of the few animals that will commit suicide in the wild, could survive to be as ancient as they are, maybe I could too. I now take in turtle rescues, and this winter has been the best I’ve had in fifteen years. The funny thing about volunteer work and depression is that it takes the focus off the emotions that you are drowning in and gives you purpose. There were days when I slept with the turtle in my bed, and I only could continue to get out of bed by reminding myself that lights had to be turned on, food put out, skin treated… etc My mother is fond of telling me that I have always been difficult to love, but the turtles allowed me to feel like I was actively making a difference with my life while feeling loved without judgment. It’s been the best treatment I have found for my disorder so far.

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