I was recently captured and unsettled by a widely circulated global conference notice describing mental disorders as an “enormous disease burden” on human society.This statement should give us a bit of pause, and cause us to reflect on what we know, what we assume, and what the impacts of such a mindset may be.
Humans have struggled with the nature of mental disorder since at least the beginning of recorded time, and many of the powerful metaphors of such live on with unbelievably deep and strong roots – they just won’t give up their holds on our minds, whether consciously or unconsciously. Many contain truths and helpful ideas, but each also falls short of providing a clear way forward for how to think about this human condition that impacts all of humanity and each of us.
People with mental disorders have been seen and treated as sages, wise men and women “touched” by the divine, and deeply respected, even cherished and worshiped as oracles. If that is the role of people with so-called psychiatric conditions, we can imagine the lives and treatment they might have received at the hands of society.
“Menacized” in the middle ages in much of the western world, the focus on requiring people to submit in fear through methods of confinement, fettering, and weakening through beatings were the obvious result. One cannot help but realize the parallel with the US practice of confining people with serious mental illness in prison today – over 350,000 as of 2012. This belief system – mentally ill as “menace” – has great power in our minds and simply won’t give up.
The predominant role today across the world represented a sea change – the envisioning of mental disorders as a medical condition. This is accepted almost without question in many parts of the world.In some ways, it has been a very effective change that has brought some good things for people who experience conditions of disordered thinking. On a very basic level, it has been said that the purposeful shift to the medical mindset meant that, when a person had a episode of significant emotional distress indicating a mental condition, the men in the white coats showed up with an ambulance instead of the police with a wagon.
But the medical model carries with it all sorts of incoherencies when applied to mental disorders which cause distress and problems for society, but especially people experiencing such disorders. For many people, being prescribed lots of powerful medications without great care and careful oversight have wreaked havoc on people’s bodies and minds and focus, and have sometimes made recovering a full life out side the mental health system all but impossible. And, when people fail to respond to all sorts of therapies and treatments, custodial care or imprisonment remain as very real possibilities in many parts of the world.
Of course, looking deeply to history and around the edges of popular practice often yields great insight and even great hope, a much needed commodity in the mental health field.One need only look to the moral treatment movement to see glimpses of the power of people to get stronger, to gain a fuller life, to recover and even heal from difficulties both within the body and mind, and from a human society which can inflict devastating wounds on those who are seen as different. One can look to an organization in service to women with mental disorders who chooses to refer to the highly vulnerable and deeply persecuted women it serves as being “in distress” rather than “mentally ill”. This is a small but important distinction that allows for a different view of those women, and a whole different set of assumptions about what they might need.
We should be cautious about the mindsets we use to try to understand mental disorders. There is no question that many of the frameworks for understanding it may be helpful – the medical model offers something important, but the disease mindset causes big problems in how people get treated. The “recovery” framework, the idea that people can live full lives, contribute and grow has developmental assumptions which not only give hope, but help people learn to manage the aspects of the mental disorder which make life difficult. At the same time, this has failed many people languishing in prisons across the US. One thing we do know is no single framework offers a complete understanding of the phenomenon of mental disorder. Assuming that the answers lie only in the realm of science, or society, or medicine, or religion leads to “answers” we might regret.