The Myths of Mental Illness: A Thomas Szasz Appreciation (Part One)

The most humbling honor of being a teacher — I mean a teacher, not just a salaried “education worker” — is earning the trust of variously perplexed, abnormal souls who have intuited that they need some extraordinary help with their self-understanding or their relationship to the world around them, and have come to believe that you might be able to provide that help.

This would be true in all times and places, insofar as any teacher is, in a certain sense, a personal guide to living, and such guidance is needed most by those who, for any number of reasons, have gotten off the track of “normalcy” that all social structures provide — or rather impose — as the default path for young people. However, in the midst of our late modern civilizational decay, in which materialist reductionism is engaged in an aggressive campaign to thwart the individual soul’s natural but infinitely difficult, exhilarating but often painful search for meaning, the teacher, in his definitive role as mentor and personal guide, also serves as something of an underground railroad for those whose minds remain somehow, miraculously, resistant to today’s pseudoscientific indoctrination, and are intuitively seeking an escape. That is, the teacher-student relationship, in its most serious instantiations, functions today partly as a means of spiriting a few souls, one at a time, out of today’s academic-materialist bondage, and into at least the antechamber of psychological freedom.

All eras have their boundaries for abnormal spirits to contend with, of course, often with horrific consequences. Nevertheless, I contend that our current age, with its historically unique and ubiquitous totalitarian tenor, has universalized an always-present but hitherto-isolated problem. Just as the globe, having been fully explored and “civilized,” no longer offers any hope of geographical escape, so the social and emotional universe, in the throes of scientific progressive indoctrination, has shone its corruptive light into almost every corner of modern being, leaving little hope for a lonely soul setting out on a makeshift raft in search of an uncharted desert isle.

One of the catastrophes of modernity has been the gradual disintegration of philosophy, the great unifying discipline and highest sublimation of the soul’s essential longing, into that hodgepodge of academic blind mice and presupposition-laden “specializations” that collectively and presumptuously call themselves “the social sciences.” That title is a double lie. These splinter disciplines, intellectually limited perspectives with no legitimate application to anything beyond their intrinsic boundaries, are neither sciences in the modern understanding of that word (behind which they seek unearned credibility), nor even particularly social, if by social we mean “pertaining to the interaction of human beings in societies.” For each of these specializations, in its own peculiar way, is hellbent on proving precisely that human beings do not exist, in any manner fundamentally distinct from rocks and trees, and hence that “society” is in truth nothing but a romantic-mythic label for the interaction of atoms of a certain type, in a specific environment. This reductionism has become endemic to economics, sociology, anthropology, and the rest of the social sciences, since they detached themselves from philosophy’s comprehensive search for wisdom — and then turned around and started presenting themselves as wisdom, each discipline according to its own self-limiting, myopic “paradigm.”

Of all the social sciences with their various rationalizations for confusing narrow-minded exclusionism with knowledge of the whole, however, perhaps none is more directly and deeply damaging to the quest for essential human truth than the academic voodoo that dares to call itself psychology. For while sociology and anthropology reduce human community and politics to the lexicon of experimental farming — that is what “culture” means, although we have long since forgotten its original (and dubious) metaphorical sense in favor of using it with pseudoscientific literalness, i.e., as though it names a thing that tangibly exists — and economists are forever attempting to explain human behavior entirely according to the sub-rational cause-effect mechanisms of “the market” or “production and distribution” (consider how commonplace the dehumanizing phrase “human resources” has become), psychology alone plies its reductionist trade right in the wheelhouse of human life, namely in the nebulous workings of the soul itself.

Beginning from the quietly stated but loudly self-refuting premise that there is no psyche, i.e., no soul, i.e., no human life, modern psychology and psychiatry, lacking any serious philosophical underpinning — or even a simple awareness of the difference between words and meanings — has devolved into a weird amalgam of bad poetry and empirical pretense, leaping clumsily and, if you will, unconsciously, from fanciful, far-fetched metaphors to assertions of scientific certainty, seemingly unaware that it is trying to have its cake and eat it too.

Among the most disturbing effects of this historical separation of psychology from its roots in the ancient theory of the soul, or even, for that matter, from the less profound early modern speculations on the “state of nature,” is that the discipline has followed its own metaphors down the rabbit hole and conflated what it calls “mental illness” — that is, moral and emotional difficulties — with literal physical illness, thereby reducing chronic or acute struggles in living as a human being among others, spiritual abnormalities, to the simplistic falsifications of material abnormality, i.e., disease.

Though the corruption of the “study of the soul” has had numerous adverse effects on late modern life, and served as the rationalization of so much tyranny, perhaps the most pernicious immediate effect of this pseudoscientific reductionism in the “democratic world” is our current widespread and astonishingly careless use of pharmaceuticals to treat so-called “mental illnesses” — everything from “attention deficit disorder” in children, to its adult equivalent, “depression” — as though these problems were no different, in principle, from bacterial infections or malignant tumors.

The idea implicit in all this psychiatric drugging of modernity is that feelings of deep sadness, restlessness, confusion, despondency, lethargy, detachment, frustration, fear, and inhibition are merely or essentially symptoms of brain or nervous system malfunctions which can and should be cured or palliated with medical treatment. This assumption — the core assumption of modern psychological practice when push comes to shove, or else the discipline would have no grounds for claiming to be a science, let alone for seeking medicinal cures for emotional problems — is, viewed from a philosophical perspective, nothing less than a denial of the moral and emotional existence of the individual human being.

One invaluable public character during the redefining of psychology into its outright elision of the psyche has been Dr. Thomas Szasz — a trained and (once-)respected psychiatrist who had the chutzpah to stand up to his entire profession at the very peak of its popular influence throughout modern society, sixty years ago, and say “The emperor has no clothes.” Specifically, Szasz made his name, and finally his infamy (within his field), by shouting from the rooftops that there is no such thing as mental illness. (Read his seminal article, “The Myth of Mental Illness,” here.)

Contrary to the caricatured position that has been ascribed to him continually since he began his public crusade in the late 1950s, Szasz was not saying that the psychological conditions now labeled mental illnesses do not exist. What he was saying, in fact, was almost exactly the opposite, namely that those conditions really do exist — as psychological problems, rather than as the mere misfired neurons or chemical imbalances to which his profession was effectively reducing them. In other words, his argument was that, aside from the relatively rare cases of behavioral or emotional distortion that are truly caused by verifiable and identifiable injuries to, or diseases of, the brain, most of the conditions that modern psychology and psychiatry categorize as illnesses, and propose to treat or palliate with drugs or other physical interventions, are merely what Szasz, speaking with admirable straightforwardness, called “problems in living.”

A problem in living, as he used that term, meant more or less what the real psychologists of the past — those who refused to reduce the mind to the brain, or the soul to the mind — always meant when discussing such conditions, namely moral and emotional confusion, the products of guilt, fear of the future, lack of direction, feelings of personal failure, profound discomfort with one’s personal relationships or social situation, and so on. Problems in living.

In a world full of uncertainty, human imperfections, the stresses and strains of ill-fitting but seemingly inescapable relationships, the gnawing awareness of past mistakes or wrongdoing which used to be accounted for under the now-discarded concept of “conscience,” and perceptions of personal inadequacy (real or imagined), it is impossible for any halfway sentient person not raised by wolves to avoid experiencing self-doubts, self-recriminations, or emotional isolation, of the sort that may cause some people to become hypersensitive, morally paralyzed, or just plain petrified of living, either among others or with themselves.

Today, all of these experiences, from the mildest to the most debilitating, are likely to draw from a “specialist” the recommendation of medicinal treatment — tranquilizers, antidepressants, and the like. The grave danger and misguidedness in this method of diagnosis and treatment is that, in rejecting or minimizing the moral-intellectual-situational context of psychological conditions, modern psychology is in effect denying that emotional problems are essentially related to how one lives, with whom one associates, and how one has learned to respond to the normal or exceptional vicissitudes of living as a human being among hundreds of others in one’s immediate surroundings, and millions of others in one’s political environment (using “political” in the broadest sense to refer to the pervasive social structures and community norms). This means the traditional and proper, though necessarily imperfect, method of helping people with such “problems in living,” namely helping them to see, understand, and perhaps change their ways of thinking about themselves, choosing their life paths, and judging their own past and present behavior, is now, at best, given a semi-polite nod as “folk psychology.”

Meanwhile, the experts forge ahead with force-feeding people with such problems in living exactly what they do not need, namely excuses and rationalizations for their confusion and unhappiness. “It’s not a problem with your life, it’s a disease,” they tell the suffering, which is to say “You can’t help feeling this way, you’re ill.” In other words, “Give up on your soul and your will — and take your meds like a good little patient.”

“We are trying to find the root causes of the recent increase in instances of attention deficit disorder,” say the experts, stroking their chins — while scoffing at suggestions that this new-fangled problem, to the extent it is not merely the politically convenient mislabeling of children’s healthy rebellion against the stifling conditions of modern schooling, might have something to do with the concurrent increase in the instability and disillusionment resulting from broken families, and the increase (or rather, the unprecedented appearance) of daily exposure to hours of jittery and rapidly-flashing TV images, computer and video games that suck the child’s developing mind right into that world of meaningless but anxious jittering, and popular music based primarily on the rhythms and language of sex and anger.

“We are just beginning to understand the complex mechanisms responsible for the increase in depression among young adults,” say the experts, with a mixture of pride and resignation — while denying outright that late modernity’s continual leakage of moral restraint, rational purpose, self-determination, simple community good will, and respect for psychological non-conformity, could be primary causes of a person (to quote a list of symptoms from a recent Guardian propaganda piece) “eating or sleeping too much or too little; pulling away from people and usual activities; having low or no energy; feeling numb or like nothing matters; feeling unusually confused, forgetful, on edge, angry, upset, worried or scared; and thinking of harming yourself or others.”

And so, carefully avoiding the causal connections that would undermine the easy reduction of problems in living to physical illness, late modern pseudo-scientists and their political, academic, and media enablers insist that they are here to help, and that “help,” first and foremost, means dispensing drugs that deaden the nerves, paralyze emotional responses, flatten the peaks and valleys of thought and feeling — all the while encouraging the chemically-altered to feel detached from their “illness” as victims, rather than engaged in their struggles as agents. In other words, encouraging them to embrace the defeatist fantasy that there is nothing they can do to improve their lives, so they should just lie back and let the specialists isolate and kill their disease for them — their “disease,” of course, being life.

(Far from suggesting that no one would feel “depressed” if only his or her social context or moral character were improved, I would argue that there is indeed a small proportion of the human population that will always tend this way, particularly in young adulthood. I believe, however, that rather than being something we ought to try to “fix” by drugging and coaxing such emotional outliers into compliance with our feelings of normalcy, this naturally-occurring kind of so-called depression — much rarer than the epidemic of mangled souls our social decay is producing today — has a valuable, though painful, function in the spiritual development of certain individuals. More on this in a future installment.)

During my final year teaching children full-time, one of my happiest tasks was introducing basic science to a small class of advanced Korean second-graders. Among the group was a girl who, in a more humane time, would have been labeled a dreamer. She could frequently be caught completely unaware of what was happening in class at that moment; she would sometimes violently swing her legs under her desk absentmindedly until her whole body was rocking for minutes at a time; during class, she would often assume a position that I affectionately called her “flying” position, shifting all her body weight onto her elbows and torso leaning across her desk, so that the lower half of her body was raised completely off her chair, legs shooting out behind her in midair, like a fledgling superhero.

She also had a few less innocuous habits or obsessions, the sorts of things that I thought could quickly become a source of mockery and humiliation as she grew older. As her female teachers seemed not to notice these more embarrassing habits, or not to care, I finally decided to do something for her myself. Taking her aside one day before class, I spoke to her in a very unassuming, somewhat indirect way, about the behavior in question. When I was sure she knew what I was talking about, and had already intuited that it was a “bad” habit, I made a little deal with her: If she could stop herself from doing this in class for a month, I would give her a treat.

Making sure she understood that this was not merely a game, but a little secret pact between us aimed at helping her overcome a nervous behavior — and hence, implicitly, moderating the nervousness that was causing the behavior — I was able to help her gain self-control merely by looking her directly in the eye for a moment whenever I noticed her falling into the bad habit. She would grin sheepishly and place her hands back on her desk. If there was a moment after such communication when the students were working privately, I might casually rap her on the head with my knuckle while walking around the room, to which she would respond with a giggle that bespoke a combination of conspiratorial delight and awakening pride. The communication between us was so subtle and swift that none of the other students would have known what was happening at all; the spiritual connection this episode established between us, on the other hand, and the basic trust it fostered in her, was having an even more profound effect than I might have hoped.

Not only did she break her bad habits, but she also began to participate more actively and attentively in class. Her off-the-wall dreamer’s personality remained intact — and made her fascinating and charming — but she could now interact with classmates in a more comfortable manner. She would often visit me before class, usually just to chat about nothing of significance. One day, however, she visited me at my desk in the teachers’ office, carrying a common children’s novelty pen with a small plastic bubble on the top, in which three tiny beads produced a soft rattling sound when shaken. Leaning in close, and speaking in a slow, deliberate whisper, she pointed to each of the beads in turn, identifying them: “Mother…Father…Teacher.” I smiled at her on the outside. On the inside I was shaken by the enormous power a teacher can have in a person’s life. I had broken the barrier; she had invited me into her bubble. None of my childhood teachers had had any similar effect on me, though Lord knows I could have used it. That, I suppose, was why I understood this girl’s need so well. I had been in her position — feeling awkward and detached in my social environment, becoming increasingly isolated and insulated within my imagination — so I knew, intuitively, what a little personalized (i.e., understanding) attention, and sincere, affectionate guidance could mean to such a child.

A spell had been at least partially broken; an essential dread of participating in the world beyond her parents’ protective cocoon was lifting. I was the safety net she had needed to step out onto the wire. Some months later, when I left the children’s academy to return to university teaching, my fledgling superhero brought me an envelope. It contained a long letter from her mother — whom I had only seen once and never spoken to, and who apologized meekly for her writing, as this was her first-ever English language letter — explaining how important I had been to her daughter’s emotional development.

That is what happened. But what would have happened, without my (or someone else’s) intervention at that difficult moment? In today’s climate, particularly in modern schooling, it is a very fair bet that she would soon have been subjected to professional counseling aimed at persuading her to “adjust to normal school life,” along with a “trial period” on drugs aimed at quelling her behavioral oddities and anxiousness — “so disruptive to the other children” (not at all actually), and “likely to cause her to fall behind in school” (the progressive imperatives of standardized indoctrination being sufficient grounds for drugging a child into listlessness?).

This latter option, in fact — forced conformity to progressive social norms, abetted by mind-altering drugs — is the one currently being imposed on hundreds of thousands of children around the world. An article on the website of the U.S. federal government’s National Institute of Mental Health, written by a former director of the organization, announces that “7.5 percent of U.S. children between ages 6 and 17 were taking medication for ‘emotional or behavioral difficulties’ in 2011-2012,” and that the number of medicated children has been rising exponentially in recent decades. After condescendingly reciting some of the standard “popular” concerns about these numbers, the writer’s conclusion is that what the numbers indicate — get ready — is that the U.S. is not drugging enough children to deal with the breadth of the problem.

Another typical article about this practice begins this way:

One in ten of America’s children has an emotional disturbance such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression or anxiety, that can cause unhappiness for the child and problems at home, at play, and at school.

“Unhappiness.” “Problems.” Well, no one wants to see unhappy children, or children having problems. But does it follow that smothering that unhappiness or those problems by whatever means necessary ought to be a social, educational, or familial priority? Or that unhappiness-erasure or problem-obliteration can even be justified at all, given the level of involuntary denaturing of innocent souls entailed by such “treatment”? All the sheep will be raised in the same pen. Black sheep will be whitewashed. There will be no “unhappiness” or “problems” in our progressive scientific world.

The matter-of-factness with which the self-described experts assume that artificially-induced “happiness” and the forced deletion of “problems,” achieved immediately and through brain-altering medical intervention, is the proper and primary goal of psychology — let alone that these experts have any idea what happiness is, or can prove that “problems” may not have a vital role in spiritual development — is nothing short of a vindication of Aldous Huxley’s terrifying prognostications in Brave New World.

We are there. Not heading there. There.

No escape for black sheep

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