Like many Canadians at this time of year, the winter blahs take their toll on me. The psychiatric world calls it seasonal affective disorder or SAD. Mental health is most often seen through a “biomedical” lens: illnesses to be treated, problems to be solved. What if the problem isn’t just individual, but also societal?
In trying to understand human psychology, we’ve come up with many different systems of thought. Traditional cultures think in terms of spirits and demons, and use ritual, prayer, and sacred medicines to manage dysfunction.
In these societies, those who think differently are often considered to be special — for example, blessed with the gift of hearing voices from the spirit world. With a healthy spiritual life and the support of their community, even someone dramatically outside of “neurotypical” can live a fulfilling life.
On the other hand, our medicalized, rational culture categorizes, quantifies, and labels mental “illness.” The psychiatric community generally diagnoses conditions like depression or schizophrenia with a checklist: if you have this many symptoms, then you get that label. Since you’re labelled “sick,” you need treatment. Now take these pills — problem solved!
This might work in an abstract world, but real life is far more complex. The shame and treatment foisted on someone who’s been told they’re crazy can in fact make the problem worse. Perhaps we’re missing the bigger picture.
Consider the idea that mental health is not actually built on binaries. You’re not just depressed, bipolar, anxious, schizophrenic, autistic, ADHD, crazy, sane, or anything else. Instead, everyone — yes everyone — experiences some degree of all of the above at some point in their life.
Some experience chronic, debilitating symptoms, whereas others may never notice, or never consider anything to be wrong. Things can come and go depending on life situation, nutrition, exercise, drugs, stress level — even the bloody weather. Everyone’s brain is a little different, which might make certain conditions more likely, but I believe we underestimate the role the environment can play.
This society is not designed for sanity. The modern world is full of unpleasant things: poverty, exploitation, denaturalization, industrialized education, long working hours, alienation, and so on. For those not born into economic privilege, the deck is stacked against us.
Seeking an education means decades of student debt, delaying or preventing family life. For most, the threat of poverty and homelessness compels us to sell our labour for an hourly wage in an unfulfilling job. After a 40+-hour work week, many are too exhausted for personal growth.
In place of self-fulfillment, the culture industry provides us with convenient misery repellents: booze, TV, the trappings of consumerism — and all of it helps to portray this way of life as the natural state of the world.
Some can accept this system and live within its confines, but many of us cannot.
The options are limited for we who don’t fit. A doctor’s prescription can help, but many drugs (both legal and illegal) simply dull the pain. New research into psychedelic drugs shows promise, but legal and social barriers remain. Cognitive therapy can start to heal the damage of past trauma, but short of dramatic lifestyle changes, full recovery can be difficult.
Mental healthcare has come a long way in the last century. Better understandings of the human brain, pharmacology, and psychology have improved the lives of countless people. The stigma that keeps people from seeking help is slowly dissolving, but we’ve got a long way to go.
If we are to solve the epidemic of mental illness, we need to change our approach. To quote Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”