How Should We Evaluate Mental Illness?

The general viewpoint and attitude towards mental illness has become more sympathetic in our society over the last century. Intertwined with and subtending this increasingly sympathetic viewpoint is the growth of psychology as a field. Psychology is an organized attempt at understanding mental phenomena and the soul. It studies mental illness as a problem to be dealt with, whether sympathetically or with cruel ignorance. This is a both a fragmented and distorted view that neglects a very important possibility. Those with mental illness can provide insight into the depths of the human psyche that few of us who are not risking our mental well-being can access.

Perhaps increased mental illness is correlated to a more penetrating insight that pierces through socially accepted coping mechanisms that cover over aspects of truth. These render the ones who perceive it incapable of taking part in the comforts of our socially constructed and accepted coping mechanisms. It is the very ability to cover over aspects of our personal and social relationships that is called into question and leads to a movement into mental illness.

Not all people with mental illness are so because of insight and not all people who achieve insight that penetrates beyond the socially accepted psychological safety net will become mentally ill. Increased insight may be the seed of mental illness. A depressed person is often more accurate in their assessment of reality than people who are happy. In other words, a depressed mood is associated with a more realistic way of relating to the world.

This may strike us as a troubling thought. We are hammered with the idea that happiness is good, that which everything we do is aimed towards and servicing. Happiness here is being used in the way that it is generally used in popular culture, something to the effect of feeling good or living in a pleasurable manner. The popular interpretation of happiness is more or less emotional hedonism, maximizing emotional pleasure.

This is very different from the ancient use of happiness as eudemonia, which was more like well-being, or personal actualization of goodness – not feeling pleasant in the way that getting a new car brings pleasure.Darker emotions are generally seen as threats to emotional pleasure and are treated as something that needs dealing. Two ways that darker emotions are related to is a denial of them, or a more “positive” way, in which they are simply exploited in the service of emotional pleasure, or the contemporary popular conception of happiness (i.e listening to a sad song so you can feel better, and avoid the negative emotion).

But these darker emotions are rooted in a way of being, and are tied up with a certain way of relating to the world that leads to emotions that are not pleasant. This way of relating to the world may be rooted in delusion but it may also be rooted in an insight that rends the socially accepted coping mechanisms that allow most people to ignore certain aspects of truth, and in doing so to remain emotionally pleasant or happy.

Let us look at a brief example. There is a child who has entered into an economical, quid pro quo, relationship with her parents. All of her friends seem to more or less be in a similar situation. They are around their parents and have family dinners and get along just fine with them. They are happy (in an emotionally pleasant state) with their family, and draw much support from them. But their families too are based on a quid pro quo relationship. The parents support the children, financially and emotionally, in as much as the children do what the parents want them to do. Her friends are trading their lives for support of their lives, and this is the basic structure of the family relationship for them.

Of course there are less cynical aspects to the relationship, like a warmth and love that they share and a secure sense of identity that comes along with being part of a happy family. But this is dependent on ignoring the structural basis of the family relationship. There is a trading of the child’s life for the support of their life by their family. This is the normal structure of family relations in this hypothetical social setting.

But most of the people seem happy…no one has noticed that all of their love and warmth and secure identity is based on a cruel, or at least seemingly cruel, trade. It is only this one girl who is depressed. Years ago she noticed that her secure identity and her family warmth were founded on an economical relationship, in which emotions, lives, and money are traded as common currency. But this is true for everyone around her too; it’s just that she has noticed it. So she grew depressed. Lost interest in her family and felt alone.

All of her friends are still happy and in similar situations and they try to help her feel happy by pointing to the warm love of her family as well as the financial support she is receiving from them (this is what they tell each other and themselves when feeling blue) but nothing they say helps because she has seen the root of the family structure in her society. She can no longer be touched by the warmth of family that keeps everyone so happy, because she has seen the economic relationship that is at the root of family love.

It is true that she can be made to feel better by distracting her from her realization, or dismissing it as a partial truth that obscures an accurate, holistic experience of family life as full of warmth and love. But nonetheless it is a partial truth that no one else is seeing; or if they are, not in the same depth and with the same acuity that this girl is seeing it. While we should help her live a functional and happy life despite her painful insight, we don’t need to ignore her insight. We can learn from someone who has undergone great pain realizing truth that most others are not seeing, not just make them stop seeing it so they can feel better.

People with mental disorders, such as depression, can be socially related to in such a manner that their potentially increased, and discomforting, access to truth, is honored and turned into a social good, not a social problem (or something to be exploited for “happiness”). Given our current social structures and the ways in which we relate to ourselves, the general public cannot access these truths without causing a widespread, painful reaction, that would perhaps undermine basic social structures so much that the experiences would simply be painful and chaotic, and there would not be sufficient social stability to learn from the experiences in an organized manner that could be integrated into a stable social consciousness.

Those of us who are living in the comfort of mental well- being, busying ourselves with day-to-day activities, and not directly experiencing a “truer” relation to the world, don’t need to condescend to those with mental illness as people who haven’t figured out how to live “happily” or “sanely”. Again, this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t work as a society to integrate people with mental illness and help them live. But we cannot continue to do so by denying their truths and helping them be “happy.” We can learn from those who have gained more authentic access to reality, and not let the insights they have gained be swept under the rug as something that we can help them forget.

The mentally ill, at least some of them, can be learned from and tended to as those who have delved to a level of reality that is not easily integrated back into the public sphere of day-to-day light-hearted “happiness”. Those who are mentally ill can, in some cases, be viewed as those who have made a sacrifice that the rest of us can learn from, while preserving our own mental well being. These people are martyrs of consciousness. They have delved to depths that their surroundings and their own mind do not allow integrated back into a functional worldview. The relation to the mentally ill is no a one-way street. Those of us who are not mentally ill can teach the mentally ill functionality, but the mentally ill can teach the rest of us truth, if we learn to listen.