Editor’s Note: This article, written by Julia X, was first published on our affiliate site, Mad in Sweden.
What is a human being? To understand mental illness, we first need to understand what a person really is. But we do, you might be thinking now. Science has a pretty good grasp of how the body and brain work, right? Psychologists help people who feel bad and doctors prescribe medicine for broken brains with a lack of one or another neurotransmitter. We have treatment programs for addicts and psychiatric clinics for the depressed. That’s good right?
Absolutely, all of that is great for those who are helped. Far from all of them will be, however.
Besides, wouldn’t it be better if people didn’t have to feel bad to begin with?
Mental illness is usually caused by something happening. We didn’t go and get imbalanced neurotransmitters all of a sudden for no reason. We didn’t start feeling bad for no reason. The body is a system and something upset our systems so that they no longer function the same way they did before. The question is what and the answer is individual.
There are as many causes of mental illness as there are people, because each person has their own unique biology and unique destiny and way of dealing with life.
Some live through a traumatic childhood. Some get too little love, others are met with too much anger. Someone grows up with the constant stress of poverty hanging over them, another is bullied at school, a third experiences trauma in adulthood. There are many different ways for a person to break down, and we live in a society that is in many ways destructive and downright anti-human, thus putting obstacles in the way of genuine healing taking place at all.
Prescribing anti-depressant medication to people who feel bad is standard treatment today, maybe a little therapy too, so that we learn better ways to deal with life. The question is though, is the answer to numb ourselves and learn to deal with lives that we don’t feel good about? Shouldn’t the solution be to heal and live lives that don’t make us stressed, unhappy, and sick?
In today’s individualistic capitalist society, the collective has ceased to offer support and community. At the same time, capitalism uses people as impersonal cogs in a soulless machine, often for no other purpose than financial gain. People are living more and more alone and isolated, stressing about jobs they find pointless but need to survive and, with the money they earn from it, they buy things they don’t really need. Consumption to feel some kind of kick, some spark, something that lights up life.
In this stressed, isolated, and meaningless state that more and more people find themselves in, is it any wonder that people feel bad?
The brain may be controlled by neurotransmitters, but neurotransmitters are affected by the life you live. Chronic stress increases the amount of some neurotransmitters and decreases the amount of others. The brain and the rest of the body end up out of balance when too much of the resources are spent on dealing with a stressful life situation. We are born with a certain DNA but epigenetics shows that genes turn on and off in conjunction with the environment we live in. The body is adaptable and does what it can to survive so that it changes your DNA if it deems that change is more favorable to your survival than your original state.
The body does not care whether you are happy or not. It cares about sheer survival. If you live in a stressful environment, your body perceives it as danger and will do everything it can to get you through your life circumstances, no matter how counterproductive it is for your actual quality of life. The stress does not even have to be from the environment itself, but can just as easily come at least partly from poor diet, too little exercise, lack of social contact. Everything bad that gets too much and everything good that gets too little creates an imbalance and mental or physical ill health arises. So no, it’s not our neurotransmitters that are wrong. We are part of a larger system which in many ways is bad for people to live in so the focus should not be on how we cure individuals but how we change the system.
The strange thing is that psychiatry today seems to lack systems thinking regarding how each individual is part of a larger system.
Psychologists may work from such an approach, but psychiatry in general does not; there the focus is not fundamentally on curing but on mitigating symptoms and making people productive citizens of society. Capitalist society is not based on happiness but on productivity, and psychiatry is part of this system, not least because of the pharmaceutical companies’ great influence over research.
You could call it corruption if you were of the zealous sort.
Unfortunately, today’s society is so crooked that it is not even seen as strange that powerful interests control the very research that shows that precisely what they make money from seems to be the most effective remedy for the suffering the system they are a part of caused.
So where do we start when the problem is so complex? When the whole society is dysfunctional?
First and foremost with information. By reading and educating ourselves as much as we can about how both people and society work. You can’t change what you don’t understand, so first we have to understand. We have to understand ourselves, other people and the world in as many ways as possible and through that understanding we can change our lives in different ways and show that there are alternatives. Other ways of being, other ways of living, other ways of looking at the world.
We can be the examples.
We can learn to deal with our difficulties in ways that suit us and we can live our lives as empathic individuals who take care of ourselves and others from a holistic perspective. Not according to templates and rules in a dysfunctional system that leads to more disease and unhappiness.
How do we change society? How do we make the world a better place? How do we help people achieve their true potential, as happy, not just productive?
By the fact that when we have reached a point where we have come far enough in our own journeys, we share our experiences as best we can with anyone who wants to listen. Those of us who have somehow reached a point in life where we actually started to feel better have a unique perspective on life worth listening to. We can tell you about what made us sick and we can tell you how we got better again and no research beats a lifetime of living examples.
All new thoughts are regarded as madness to begin with and perhaps it is we who have already worn the label “crazy” who have to bring forward new ideas about psychiatry. Who else?
We’ve been part of the psychiatric system and experienced its dysfunction up close, so who better to speak on the subject than us?
“Be the change you want to see in the world” goes a famous quote. We need to be that change by actively sharing all our collective knowledge and our collective life experiences and we need to reach as many people as possible.
Change is possible and it starts with you, us, here and now.
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.
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