Yesterday I tried to update my Facebook status and say what I want to say about my mental “health” and “illness” in a quick #BellLetTalk sound byte, but I couldn’t do it.
Because ultimately, I want to talk about what happens when we put matters of thinking and feeling on a health and illness spectrum.
Health has come to symbolize a normally functioning system. At the positive end of the spectrum it exists in an ideal “perfect” state, attained through prescriptive routine and care of the self. At the negative end of the spectrum is illness, or perhaps even death in its extreme.
For our physical selves, health is a handy concept for keeping us alive. There are things we can measure and samples we can take and evidence we can gather, to allow us to hold the concept of physical health to empirical standards and scientific classifications. The symptoms of physical illness are easy to identify because they are not “normal” to our usual functioning system. We have a fever, we have a rash, we feel nauseous, because there is some foreign invader coming in a messing things up. That is when we are ill. And because we are ill, we have to fight that invader off, with our immune system and drugs and physical therapies, so that we can get back to “normal”. We are talking of matters like breathing and bleeding.
With mental health, we are talking of matters of the thinking and feeling. And as we try to deal with it on our health and illness spectrum, we have to take a big leap that science cannot easily reach. Because while we can empirically determine what hormones and neurotransmitters can create certain thoughts and feelings within us through neuroscience, no field of science has yet to be able to empirically measure a thought or a feeling as it is experienced, not in the same way we can measure a heartbeat or a bacterial infection. That has not, however, stopped us from trying to create a science of the self.
Putting matters of thoughts and feelings on a health and illness spectrum does have its benefits. Certainly fields of psychology and psychiatry have contributed greatly to our current understandings of the self; they help us define what is normal as a guidepost for morality, and help us identify coping strategies and ways to conform and contribute to our relationships, our communities and our culture; they have told us that that there is an ideal, normative and healthy way to think and feel. But in reality, they have only ever told us what mental health is not, because there is no example of what it is… just that when we have it, we are normal, functioning, contributing, productive and have value.
Psychology and psychiatry also shift the blame to us as individuals, the intruders are our own thoughts and feelings that are messing things up for us, not anything coming from our economic, social and cultural environments. Nothing “out there” can “fix us” and make us normal, our thoughts and feelings are ours to deal with on an individual level. if we can’t regulate them ourselves, we need drugs to hel us regulate them for us. Psychology and psychiatry tells us that the way things are “out there” are beyond our control, so we need to accept those things and focus on how we react and behave towards them.
When we are labelled as having mental health issues, or being mentally ill, what we are really being labelled as is not thinking or feeling normal when compared with the way that the status quo experience reality. We feel sad more than we should, we feel anxious more than we like, we have compulsions and obsessions, and we don’t quite know how to interact with other people. We are in some way damaged. The way we think and behave and feel, is sick somehow… It can lead us into states of crisis, where we fight our thoughts and feelings, we struggle with them, we try to control them, we try to run away from them using all manner of substances. They can be so strong that they make us physically ill.
Mental illness makes us think and feel like depressed, anxious, narcissistic, obsessive, indulgent, traumatized, socially awkward, dissociative weirdos… but do those things exist because there is something wrong with us? Maybe we actually think and feel exactly how we are supposed to think and feel given the realities of our lives. Maybe we are quite mentally healthy, and our cognitive and emotive systems are working properly; the problems are more with the things we are having to process through them.
The concept of mental health exists to keep us striving to be normal; to accept and conform to the status quo way of thinking and feeling so we can be good little consumers and workers and contributors even if we can’t, or don’t want to be, any of those things. It forces us to fit ourselves into economic, social, political, and cultural systems which may simply be inappropriate for us to thrive and grow as individuals. This concept of mental health actually only works for people who have no mental health issues.
I recognize the importance and value of bringing thoughts and feelings about our thoughts and feelings, out into the open with comradery and respect. However, I fundamentally do not believe there is such a thing as mental normality, so I cringe when I try to place my thoughts and feelings on a health and illness spectrum. I can be a depressed, anxious, narcissistic, obsessive, indulgent, traumatized, socially awkward, dissociative weirdo at times. But that doesn’t make me sick. That makes me human.