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Mental Illness

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Mental disorder

1857 lithograph by Armand Gautier via Wikipedia

Some contemporary discourse about so-called mental illness arguably simplifies this complex physiological, psychological, sociological, spiritual and perhaps evolutionary issue.

Undoubtedly, individuals suffer who find themselves significantly different from the cultural norms in which they live. And sometimes this suffering escalates or develops into behavior patterns that their society deems deviant, in the negative sense, and not just different, in the non-judgmental sense.

In addition, the afflicted individuals, themselves, often see it this way. But several questions remain open to interpretation and debate:

  • Why are these individuals different?
  • Why do they suffer?
  • What does it mean?

Spiritually based answers from various world traditions tend to focus on ideas of sin, taking another’s sins, intercession, impurity, spiritual attack (or ‘spiritual warfare’), obsession, possession, evil, ignorance, deception, curses, spiritual pollutionkarma and karma transfer.

Sociological perspectives include factors such as cross-cultural norms, economic disparity, gender, race, violence, hypocrisy, corruption and the role of social power in defining so-called mental illness as an illness, per se.

Psychological studies tend to focus on a person’s genetic predisposition (nature) and his or her social conditioning (nurture).

Biological accounts emphasize factors like genetics, physiology, diet, environmental pollution and possible substance abuse.

The Catholic view tends to outline a combination of current scientific and traditionally understood spiritual beliefs. In fact, Catholics try to distinguish among redemptive suffering, avoidable suffering and suffering due to mental illness. Whether or not they’re always successful in getting it right here is a matter open to debate.

The Catholic catechism also defines certain lifestyle choices and their related behaviors as “grave disorders” and sometimes as “perversions,” which may include the concepts of sin, nature, nurture, as well as negative spiritual influences–that is, the invisible influence of Satan. Two good examples of this are homosexuality and masturbation, which for the Vatican are both unacceptable.

In actual practice, which arguably is not always the same as an official teaching, it seems that some priests and Catholic writers lean toward their spiritual tradition by emphasizing the idea of ‘spiritual warfare,’ while other Catholics emphasize a biogenetic or developmental aetiology for so-called mental illness.

Other leading figures combine several approaches, which seems most sensible.

More recently, the importance of the idea of mental injury in contrast to mental illness has arisen. The notion of ‘injury’ seems to connote a greater possibility for full recovery, while the sociologist Erving Goffman says that the tag ‘illness’ stigmatizes individuals. Moreover, Goffman says institutionalized treatments may involve not just a potential cure but, on the down side, a “destruction of life chances.”¹

Futurists and visionaries tend to focus on the interpretive aspect of the phenomenon of mental illness. If someone, for example, really does receive other people’s thoughts but grows up in a culture that doesn’t understand nor accept this ability, they might feel unhappy and perhaps develop of full-fledged mental illness.

But what if, the theory goes, in a thousand years time humanity has evolved to a point where mind-reading is a cultural norm? In this scenario, the person who doesn’t read minds might be seen as mentally ill. And 31C historians would possibly look back at some of today’s so-called mentally ill as tragic pioneers, treading along a thorny path strewn with cultural bias and ignorance.

In short, the idea of mental illness is probably best seen as a complex and ever-changing issue, one that involves nature, nurture, community, ideology and belief.

¹ Erving Goffman, Asylums, New York: Anchor Books, 1961, p. 344.

Search Think Free » Athleticism, Demons, DSM-IV-TR, Foucault (Michel), Illness, Laing (R. D.), Madness, Occam’s razor, Shaman, Suffering, Szasz (Thomas)

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