I’m not sure how it works in other parts of the world, but I do know that here in the US a central message of our culture is to pick yourself up by the bootstraps, toughen up, and stop blaming others for your problems. If you’re poor, it’s your fault. If you’re sad, you’re a baby. If you ask for help, you’re a moocher demanding a handout. Independence, lack of emotion or vulnerability, and material wealth are what most of us are taught to strive for, above and beyond most anything. This is the ideal of mental health. On the other hand, displays of melancholy, pain, fear, or uncertainty are not only spurned, but they often have dire consequences.
Men are told from the youngest of ages to “stop being such a sissy” and “learn to be a man.” They learn to swallow their tears and mask their pain lest they get beaten by their peers or marginalized as being “a girl.” Forget about actually being a girl. When “acting like a girl” is a mortal insult, it becomes quite clear the less-than human nature of femininity and womanhood. And if a woman dares to be more “manly” she is viewed as “butch” or its close cousin, “bitch.” Women who are sexually assaulted are blamed, and if they suffer years later are told they are “playing the victim.” Black people and other minorities are told they are “too sensitive” for demanding the end to systematic racism (as are advocates from many civil rights movements). If someone cannot hide their pain or scream in agony, they are shipped off to be “dealt with” by mental health professionals. There is absolutely no room for empathy or compassion in our modern society, let alone an acknowledgement of grief, sorrow, oppression, and trauma.
The rapidly increased rates of diagnosable mental illness may have been partially driven by greed, corporate interests, prestige, and consequences of drugging the masses with toxic chemicals known to cause many of the problems they purport to assist. Many authors, such as Robert Whitaker, have certainly made cases for all of these factors. Yet, greed and corporate tyranny can only exist when there is demand.
Rarely is there open discussion about the very nature of the dehumanized society that leads people to hide, suppress, and internalize pain; that leads people to isolation and profound loneliness; that results in fear of others’ pain and explosions of rage and violence. We are taught from our nativity to hate ourselves. Lamentably, this suppression, denial, and isolation only lead to amplified pain and loneliness; a never-ending cycle of increasing emotional turmoil that eventually, for many, leads to break-downs and crises. The result? A society that clings to the relief of being diagnosed and drugged. People rejoice when they can finally have someone, especially someone in authority say “Yes, your pain is real and you are not alone.”
Increasingly, people labeled with mental illnesses are coming out publicly to demand they no longer live in shame. Sadly, it seems the only way that individuals can appeal for empathy, understanding, and room to feel their emotional distress is through identification with a diagnostic label. In so doing, of course, it serves to further delegitimize the suffering of many others, it increases “stigma” (i.e., prejudice), it increases the likelihood of chronic problems for many, serves to reinforce the idea that “other” people do harmful things on purpose while those with “real illnesses” are passive victims to some brain disease (even though no evidence has ever existed that such a disease exists, while there are consistent promises it will be found one day). The rhetoric and illusory explanations that provide validation for long-suppressed emotional suffering is like sweet, succulent candy. It is incredibly difficult to resist; food poisoning (i.e., psychiatric traumatization) may be one of the few ways of finding the willpower to do so.
If I cannot sleep at night, hate myself, and fear intimacy because I was beaten and told I was worthless as a child, then I am seen as immature, a crybaby, blaming my parents for my problems, selfish, and unable to deal with life. Yet, when I say “I have PTSD” or “Bipolar Disorder,” suddenly I have a reason to feel this way. Someone finally gets me. There is renewed hope that someone will not only care, but can help me. For the first time in my life I can rejoice that I am not “bad,” just “sick.” And no one can accuse me of doing it all on purpose. As an added bonus, my family and society are off the hook, too, for they have nothing to do with my internal brain disease; they merely triggered its occurrence. The status quo is saved.
Trying to rip away the shred of hope and integrity the mental health system offers is like trying to strip off a waterproof bandage from a gaping wound. Too many people are suffering without recognition, compassion, or connection. Most people have nowhere to go when their mask wears away. If we started to recognize that pain and suffering is universal, and that those who are the angriest, cruelest, “craziest” or most difficult to be around are usually those who are suffering the greatest, how would any of us bear it? The concept of mental illness saves us from questioning the way things are; it provides comfort and an impression of caring; there is always somewhere to go and someone to turn to when one no longer has the strength to fight; it allows for escape from blame (and sometimes from any sense of responsibility for one’s actions at all); it maintains an illusion of fairness and righteousness in the world; and provides hope that our pain can be relieved through treatment. It doesn’t matter that the entire enterprise is built on false promises and an invalid, unscientific “evidence-base” of brain disorders that actually has virtually no evidence base at all.
We have seen what happens when a non-medical, non-judgmental approach is offered for people even in the most extreme states of despair. Soteria, especially during its original insurrection, demonstrated equal to — if not greater — results in helping people get through crises labelled as “schizophrenic,” with little-to-no drugs and a supportive, house-like atmosphere. Open Dialogue, in Finland, is a respectful approach that acknowledges the influence of family dynamics and the importance of inclusion and autonomy, and also uses little to no drugs or formal diagnoses. They have the best outcomes in the world for so-called schizophrenia. Mindfulness, exercise, and companionship are far more effective ways to aide those suffering depressed and hopeless states regain motivation, joy, and opportunity. And, more than anything, trauma-informed approaches to helping people grow and heal are being sought out desperately by people experiencing a range of states of distress, including hearing voices, suicidality, and altered states of reality.
Imagine, though, if we, as a society, started recognizing trauma, pain, grief, fear, the need for connection and understanding, and oppression without defensiveness or denial. What if, hypothetically, we saw the signs in people who were “defiant,” “withdrawn,” “oppositional,” “depressed,” “manic,” or otherwise as desperate pleas to have their needs met, and stopped telling them they were sick for doing so? What would a society that actually encouraged expression of emotion, compassion, and empathy look like? What if we stopped insisting that people keep tugging on those damned boot straps, welcomed “sissies” as powerful figures of conscientiousness, and didn’t insist people “just get over it”? Is that even possible? I don’t know. But, if it is, what might happen then? I sure would like to know; but, then, my idealistic yearnings may just be a reflection of my chronic tendency to “act like a girl.”
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