Driving to work in my car this morning I was struck by a sudden thought; the problem with mental illness is not that people have it but it’s that they BELIEVE they do.
When I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in an extreme state I was promptly restrained, drugged and awoke after three days to find myself in another kind of state altogether that was so strange to me it was like I had been taken over by an alien. I literally did not recognise myself in a mirror.
I looked around and saw dribbling, drooling, shuffling ‘patients’ and I knew I was not one of them. And yet, within six months I found myself living with relatives; shuffling up the main street of small town New Zealand having been diagnosed and medicated for a ‘mental illness.’ How had I suddenly gone from being ‘Tracey’ to ‘Tracey with a mental illness’? This was totally beyond me, and luckily (just how luckily I didn’t fully comprehend till many years later) I didn’t actually believe this was really possible so I rejected both the ‘illness and drugs’ as soon as I possibly could and the ‘alien’ me didn’t stay too long. However, the experience of being in those extreme states and the trauma of receiving the diagnosis and ‘treatment’ lasted for many years to come.
Those who work in mental health are starting to hear a lot about the terrible statistics and outcomes for people being treated in the mental health system and we are now constantly hearing about the burden of ‘mental illness.’
However what hit me in a sudden flash this morning in my car was that the problem/burden – or whatever we want to call it – is not that anyone actually ‘has’ one of these ‘mental illnesses.’ Because these fictitious categories of ‘illness’ are actually just invented; mostly by people who have not actually experienced these states and are therefore not qualified to discuss – let alone decide whether someone fits into one or another of them. No; the problem is not with the diagnosis or the diagnosing of these ficticious illnesses, rather it is that people actually BELIEVE in them.
This is not to dismiss in any way peoples’ actual experiences of extreme mental states and distress in all its forms; voices and visions – wondrous, relentless, terrifying or overwhelming – or the seemingly bottomless pits of sorrow and grief or any of the other confusing, staggering and mysterious places our psyches can take us to. Because all of these experiences are completely real to those in the middle of them.
The real problem we have in mental health is that people who experience these states have accepted and allowed their experiences and themselves to be defined, conceptualized, diagnosed and framed by others. People have given up their power to ‘experts,’ who take this control – sometimes out of benevolent motives – but always out of misguided and misinformed ignorance and, at its worst, out of indifferent greed. And the experts are able to do this – at least in New Zealand – because it is currently santioned by the government under the legal power of compulsory treatment.
Of course there are some people who, right from the beginning reject outright anyone else trying to tell them what their experinces are about. I did this when I first woke up in the hospital in a drug-induced daze. At first my resistance only happened in a tiny space buried deep inside of me, closed up tight in a box and hidden in a place that was untouchable by all the drugs and ‘you have a mental illness’ messages. However, it can and does take an incredible force of will to hold and nuture this resistance when you are up against a culture of compulsory hospital treatement, forced drugging, direct to consumer marketing, big business, anti-stigma campaigns that tell us all about how we need to ‘accept’ people with mental illness, and a society that has – on the whole – bought into the concept of mental illness and the ‘science’ of psychiatry.
Those who gain the most from the current system have literally ‘bought’ the shares, with those on the receiving end of the ‘care’ provided currently losing about 25 years of their life; which tends to include very poor health (mostly caused by the drugs), poverty, unemployment and being the recipients of numerous ‘services’ they do not necessarily want, delivered by people who may or may not have any understanding and empathy.
I am not saying that ‘treatment’ for the multitude of distress and trauma us human beings experience is all bad. Six years of regular psychotherapy (chosen and controlled by me) helped me navigate traumatic past experiences and gain validation and confidence in myself and my instincts. However most ironically the majority of what I needed to navigate, unpack and work through to become completely whole again, was the diagnosis and treatment I received for my apparant mental illness, which gave me nothing but pure trauma. It wasn’t until this work had been done that I could get beyond all that I had ‘received,’ and to the root causes of the extreme states I had experienced, which as it turned out was the beginning of an amazing journey of revelation and healing.
Today we find ourselves living in the middle of a ridiculous belief system called ‘psychiatry,’ which proposes itself to be science though it has no basis on which to claim this, and which has become so intertwined with profit and status that it has now completely lost any helpfulness it ever had.
This system takes our human experience of grief, loss, abuse, neglect, genius, vision, sadness, etc., and squeezes it all together into some kind of banal sausage meat, then churns it out via a DSM diagnosis with its associated standard treatment of drugs and therapy (if you’re lucky). Those who have been on the receiving end of this process instinctively know it to be a hopeless waste of time. I have never met a person who has been diagnosed with a mental illness who doesn’t believe there is more to the thiings they experience than they are being told to believe. No one who is going through an extreme life crisis or trying to recover from abuse or neglect or who has experienced visions or voices ever says “what I really need right now is a psychiatric diagnosis and some drugs, some supported accommodation and a work rehabilitation program me.” What people actually say they want is validation, safety, somewhere to hide, someone to listen, a space to be heard, maybe to scream and cry, time to explore and to not feel alone.
There never has been any ‘mental illnesses’ and there never will be; they simply don’t exist as ‘scientific’ or any other kinds of entities. There is no such thing as a chemical imbalance in the brain that ‘causes’ these experiences. Its highly likely that chemicals in the brain do change during times of extreme states and the brain almost definitely undergoes changes as a result of extreme trauma, abuse and stress, but this does not mean someone has a ‘mental illness’ – it is simply a by-product of the experience.
We have had well over 100 years of demonizing, stigmatizing, separating and labeling people as lunatic, insane, mad (or, these days, the politicaly correct ‘mentally ill’). It’s time to stop and say enough – ‘mental illness’ is a concept whose time is up.
The impact of believing you have a mental illness does so much more harm than good that it is no longer serving us as a society, and while this might sound apallingly simple; We simply need to stop believing in it.
So here is the revelation that came to me on my drive to work this morning;
Nothing more is needed for us to stop believing in mental illness, no one has to give us permission, come up with a clever strategy, help us write a plan or set a goal – we can just do it!
For people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness; unless this is working out really well for you, and you’re happy with your life just the way it is I suggest you stop believing in it right now and do any or all of the following; Join with others who feel the same way, extract yourself step-by-step-by-step from the pills, the doctors and the programmes and replace these with what you truly desire; reject the belief that you are somehow different from others, somehow damaged beyond repair, somehow not as worthy of the life you truly want and somehow not capable of achieving your wildest dreams. It may take some time to do this but a step in any direction away from believing in mental illness is pretty well guaranteed to be a step towards a better life. Many people have done it before you and many will do it after, and you’ll probably be helping others along pretty soon.
We are bigger and better than we can imagine and together we will get rid of this outdated, damaging and ridiculous idea of mental illness and create a world that is accepting of difference and responsive to human distress, trauma and grief. Together we will stop beleiving in mental illness and start believing in ourselves, and we will change the world in the process!
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.