Does mental illness have to feel so bad?

Pacific Standard has a beautiful new piece out about Nev Jones, a psychology professor who experienced psychosis while in graduate school. Her history gives her a unique insight into the unwell mind, and she devotes her study to the idea that “madness” (not my favorite word, but the one the article uses) is not an isolated phenomenon, but instead occurs in the context of a society and so can be worsened—or improved—by that society’s reaction to the afflicted.

The author writes:

Jones today describes the madness in and around her family as a koan, a puzzle that teaches by its resistance to solution, and which forces upon her the question of how to speak for those who may not be able to speak for themselves.

Jones has since made a larger version of this question—of how we think of and treat the mad, and why in the West we usually shunt them aside—her life’s work. Most of this work radiates from a single idea: Culture shapes the experience, expression, and outcome of madness. The idea is not that culture makes one mad. It’s that culture profoundly influences every aspect about how madness develops and expresses itself, from its onset to its full-blown state, from how the afflicted experience it to how others respond to it, whether it destroys you or leaves you whole.

The piece reminds me of one from several years ago in Aeon Magazine that pointed out that hallucinatory voices are almost never devoid of context, but rather reflect a person’s individual experiences and cultural surroundings. Often they are inner expressions of trauma. A new form of treatment even allowed those who heard troubling voices to find some relief by listening to what the voices had to say; the voices didn’t go away, but they became much more benign and therefore manageable.

Taken together these articles give me some kind of hope that mental illness doesn’t have to be inevitable, or at least, that the suffering from it can be greatly reduced. An episode of the podcast Invisibilia explored the idea that thoughts are not really so core to our selves as we might believe, that anyone can have thoughts that are disturbing to them and that the best way to deal with these thoughts is to acknowledge them and let them drift by. Resisting the thoughts is the surest way to make them stronger; acceptance robs them of power. Jones learns as much in her own life: “She doesn’t mind, for instance, that she still experiences some stretches and wrinkles in reality’s fabric. She accepts an occasional soft sidewalk or vaporous wall.”

Perhaps if we understood mental illness more as a relatively common reaction to being alive and human, as occasional neural noise generated by a complicated brain, and less as a terrible occasion in need of ostracization and treatment, we could learn to live better with it. Perhaps we might find that some of our symptoms and a lot of our pain simply drifts by and floats away.

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