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R.D. Laing, perusing in 1983 The Ashley Book o...

R.D. Laing, perusing in 1983 The Ashley Book of Knots in a humorous allusion to his own work, Knots via Wikipedia

Psychosis is usually defined within psychological and psychiatric circles as a fundamental “break with reality.” According to prevailing theories, this apparent break with reality is caused by some combination of biological and environmental factors, resulting in a kind of mental breakdown or disintegration where normal judgement is severly impaired or entirely lacking. This break can be non-violent or violent, temporary or permanent.

Psychiatrists like R. D. Laing and Stanislav Grof emphasize not just the negative but the potentially transformative positives that could follow a breakdown, providing it’s been competently handled and followed through. Laing, in fact, says we should try to think in terms of a potential ‘breakthrough’ instead of an irreparable ‘breakdown.’

This approach arguably has merit but most mental health professionals are quick to point out that psychosis is no trivial matter and should not be overly romanticized. While some may recover and flourish after a psychotic episode, others may never fully recover–even if a positive family and social environment is in place.

This is a point that some anti-psychiatry critics tend to overlook or perhaps try to explain by claiming that positive family members only appear to be helpful. The social network of mentally healthy “normals,” they argue, subtly scapegoat the individual in question because of that individual’s difference from the social norms and expectations in which they must live.

What’s at stake here is the definition of mental health and normalcy.

In the sphere of religion, similar difficulties arise when we try to define psychological health and normality. In New Testament times, for instance, some believed that Jesus Christ was insane or possessed by a demon:

Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebub[a]! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons (Mark 3:20-22, NIV).

While Christian believers might see Jesus rebuking his accusers with the dignity and intelligence of God’s only Son, some nonbelievers see Christ as a misguided egomaniac:

So Jesus called them and spoke to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can rob his house. I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.” He said this because they were saying, “He has an evil spirit.” (Mark 3: 23-30).

Stanislav Grof at Moscow State University, Mos...

Stanislav Grof at Moscow State University, Moscow, Russia via Wikipedia

The notion that madness is caused by evil – more specifically, by possession – was common in the ancient world.

Even today, Christians of different denominations suggest that Satan may try to enslave victims in a psychological, social and spiritual hell.

Meanwhile, the Catholic hierarchy advocates the use of psychological profiling and, when required, treatment according to the norms and standards of contemporary psychiatry.

To complicate matters, many sociologists suggest that notions of reality (i.e. as something to ‘break’ with), health and normalcy are somewhat culture-bound. And philosophers continue to debate the nature of reality and question whether normalcy really is an ethical ‘good’ to be cultivated by individuals.

Moreover, theologians and spiritual lay persons often include their particular understanding of the self, God and spirituality as factors in conceptualizing the real, the healthy and the normal.

To sum, when we consider the diverse sociological, philosophical and spiritual perspectives available to us today, psychosis appears to be a complicated idea somewhat difficult to define. Indeed, the idea of psychosis may involve biological, environmental, social and spiritual factors.

In the 21st century, however, psychiatry is vested with the legal authority to make definitive assessments in this regard. Not surprisingly, the relation between these legal powers and individual rights and freedoms differs somewhat among countries and regions.

» Beatnik, Foucault (Michel), Madness, Neurosis, Nietzsche


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