Naturally we human beings want to move from not knowing to knowledge. We want to move from not knowing how to cure a disease to finding a cure for that disease. We want to move from not knowing how to desalinate the oceans to knowing how to produce an inexhaustible supply of drinking water. Of course we want to know these things.
But this natural desire to know things ought not make us believe that we know something when we do not yet know it. This is the case for what, for a given individual, may be his most important personal problem: his emotional health. We do not know much about “what goes on” inside human beings. Nor may we ever. This is perhaps the largest “not knowing” that confronts our species and maybe also the hardest one to swallow.
This lack of knowledge leaves a hole that human beings can’t help but want to fill. The most prominent current way of filling it is to create out of whole cloth things called “mental disorders” and to then “treat” them with chemicals and talk. It is completely understandable how the hole got filled this way and there are many co-conspirators in this particular hole-filling process: mental health professionals, drug manufacturers, academics, talk show hosts, sufferers themselves, and many more.
Folks in the “other camp,” in what is loosely called the anti-psychiatry movement, have explained at length about “the myth of mental illness” and about the grave problems associated with the current “diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders” system. But they are primarily talking to each other because the current model holds such complete sway over virtually everyone. Few outside our group are listening; and those who do happen to run into our message tend not to be able to hear it.
It is exactly like trying to explain a round earth to a flat-earth believer. No matter what you say, what you will get in reply is, “I hear you but you can’t be right. If the earth were round we would all fall off.” You can explain it this way and that way, present impressive evidence and what ought to be convincing arguments, and still get only a blank stare and a shake of the head in reply: “No, can’t be, we would all fall off.”
Trying to explain that there is no such thing as a “mental disorder” as currently conceptualized and defined is exactly this sort of frustrating experience and meets with exactly this sort of certitude. No matter what you present, the average person and the average mental health professional are convinced that there “just must be mental disorders.” To them it is a settled, self-evident and incontrovertible matter.
Many of us wonder what to say next and what to do next, given the complete entrenchment of the current system and given that we on “the other side” have very little to offer by way of “answers.” If we could provide some chemicals to fight their chemicals it might become more of a fair fight! But what we primarily have are announcements about why it is so darned difficult to know what is going on inside a human being. That sort of announcement isn’t very “helpful” and of course many sufferers want actual help.
I would like to offer the following as one possible “next step” in, if not gaining some new understanding, organizing our current lack of understanding. What I propose is that we organize our thinking around the following “twelve vital questions.” I don’t know what might come of this but I can picture a possible breakthrough where, if the conversation became widespread, the paradigm might begin to shift in the direction of questioning before answering. We would still want answers: but we would begin with questions. That alone would constitute a giant step forward!
Here are the twelve questions I have in mind:
1. I am suffering emotionally. Where do I go to start getting relief?
2. I can’t tell if I have a “brain problem” or a “mind problem.” How can I figure that out?
3. Who are the “designated helpers” out there? What are the differences among them?
4. The current system is based on the idea of “diagnosing and treating mental disorders.” How should I think about that?
5. If I engage a mental health service provider I’m likely to receive a “diagnosis of a mental disorder” and be labeled in a certain way. How should I think about that label?
6. What about “antidepressants,” “psychiatric medications,” and so on? How should I conceptualize the use of those chemicals?
7. Given that “mental disorders” are “diagnosed” by virtue of the “symptoms” I present, rather than on the basis of underlying causes, how ought I to think about that?
8. What if my circumstances are causing a portion of my emotional pain? How ought I to think about that?
9. What if my formed personality is causing a portion of my emotional pain? How ought I to think about that?
10. If I don’t have much meaning or life purpose in my life, how might my emotional pain be related to that?
11. How should I conceptual “good mental health”? What am I actually aiming for?
12. I am in a lot of pain and distress right now and need immediate help. What should I do?
I am picturing a website where thinkers, alternative practitioners, open-minded mental health professionals, and anyone with something to contribute would provide pieces that are curated so that a sufferer or any interested party might get a robust, rounded sense of the underlying issues—of the “meta” questions involved.
The website might look like this:
I think this might be one sort of next step. If you agree that it might, maybe you will help fill these coffers with treasures: that is, help in finding already-existing pieces (blog posts, articles, book chapters, etc.) or in finding folks willing to write new pieces that contribute to the conversation.
It is important that we keep pointing a finger at the current glaring problems associated with the services offered to people who are suffering and that we continue to underline how little we know about “the insides” of the human mind. But it is also important that we organize our thinking in such a way that smart questions get asked and maybe, just maybe, that better answers begin to appear. You can help me do this by contributing or by volunteering. Just drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s talk!
Eric Maisel is the author of 40+ books. His books on meaning, mental health, and life purpose include The Van Gogh Blues, Rethinking Depression, Why Smart People Hurt, Natural Psychology: The New Psychology of Meaning, and Life Purpose Boot Camp. He writes the Rethinking Psychology blog for Psychology Today, blogs for the Global Summit on Diagnostic Alternatives, Mad in America, and the Huffington Post, and presents keynotes, lectures and workshops nationally and internationally. You can learn more about Dr. Maisel’s work at http://www/ericmaisel.com and reach him at email@example.com