Dr. Bossypants has a close colleague who wants to eliminate the use of the term “mentally ill.” He thinks it pathologizes people and comes from a medical model that assumes there is or will be a cure for distressing, inadequate, or damaging mental functioning. Dr. Bossypants finds herself in sympathy with this view, but it’s tough to find the right descriptor or metaphor for those times when humans feel, think, or behave in utterly miserable, irrational, destructive ways.
Maybe it would help to consider mental healthiness. Dr. Bossypants suggests that mentally healthy people think and behave in rational ways that are scientifically shown to be beneficial to the human body, mind, and community. (Yes, we include community because evolutionary science has established that humans must find ways to get along with other humans to survive as a species.) Ok, so then mental nonhealthiness would involve behaviors, beliefs, or emotional states that hurt, tear down, diminish or destroy oneself or the community.
Readers may remember that Dr. Bossypants is working on developing a college course on happiness—or, more accurately—how to live a well-lived life. Who doesn’t want to live a well-lived life? Who doesn’t want to be happy? Who doesn’t want to be mentally healthy? Apparently, most of us. Consider this list:
- Regular exercise is good for the human body.
- Ruminating about hurt feelings will make you feel worse.
- Sugar is bad for the human body.
- Defining success as continual growth is irrational.
- Forgiveness is healing.
- Revenge feels good like candy tastes good. Ultimately not good.
- Smoking damages the lungs. Lungs are important.
- Going to bed angry is bad for blood pressure and sleep.
- Cruelty engenders cruelty.
- Disproportionate wealth or poverty causes unhealthy and unsafe imbalances.
- Excessive use of mind-altering substances often mangles brains and relationships.
- Destroying habitat for the sake of individual wealth and comfort is species suicide.
This partial list was designed to irritate you, dear readers. And to illustrate that mental healthiness is relative, transitory, and difficult. We do not always (or even often) do all the things that we know to be good for us and for others. We do not correct our irrational thoughts; in fact, we often defend them vociferously. We nurture our bad moods and resentments.
Dr. Bossypants is a psychologist and is well aware that many allied professions attempt to define and quantify mentally-distressing symptoms into categories of “mental disorders.” The hope is that qualified helpers can figure out how to help these troubled (or troubling) people. And the pharmaceutical companies are hard at word coming up with chemicals to stir things up in our delicate brains.
It’s true that ingested chemicals can calm or alleviate certain symptoms, providing a bit of relief for some of the people some of the time. But they do NOT result in a “balanced brain” or a cure. In fact, there is no such thing as a “chemically-balanced brain.” Our brains are a jungle of electrical connections; a soup of neurotransmitters. They are in constant flux, transformed over and over by what we eat and drink, the drugs we swallow, smoke, or shoot up, the people we meet, the cultures we belong to, the languages we learn, the battles we fight, the math and music, the betrayals and traumas, the adorations and adulations, the viruses and virtues…what goes on in our heads is a complex set of interactions between choices, genes, education, nutrition, injury, insult, exercise, drugs, therapy, and age (and this is an incomplete list).
Most of us fall prey to small mental disruptions or failings—low motivation or mood, attractions to sugar, saturated fats, or sex with the wrong people; we’re too cheap to buy the right light bulbs, too self-indulgent, too shy. Some of us are seduced by revenge, gratified by cruelty, filled with hatred or paranoia, greedy, and deeply judgmental. Some of us are consumed by our own self-worth, willing to lie, steal, torture, and kill in order to hold on to power. Some of us like the attention or other payoffs of being sad, anxious, or generally neurotic. There are also mental malfunctions that are contagious, and even worse, there are severe mental cancers that sometimes metastasize and destroy not only their host, but entire communities.
Dr. Bossypants thinks we’d be better off admitting we all suffer from mental inadequacies and malfunctions–some occasional, some chronic. Any thought, behavior, or belief that causes loss of peace, reduces well-being, or hampers potential growth belongs on the list. Hatred. Hoarding vast amounts of money. Failure to take care of yourself and eat right. Failure to care for the planet. The possibilities are infinite. The metaphor of “mental illness” might even be helpful, if we are ready to admit we all have at least a touch of this bug.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could medicate away all human suffering? All human failing? But as they say, a pill is not a skill. Recovering from a bout of mental malfunctioning or distress involves naming and accepting our mental upset stomachs, our moral failings, our selfish, vindictive, lazy thoughts, urges, and actions– in ourselves and others. Getting better involves patience. Compassion. Containment. It involves facing our fears, minimizing our denial, seeking the help we need, and offering that help to others who need it.
It’s all about acceptance. Life is impermanent and precarious. Most of us are doing the best we can in any given moment. That’s not to say there’s no room for improvement, but sometimes, we just have to endure the occasional bout of less than optimal functioning in ourselves and others, accepting that this, too, is part of the human condition.
One final observation: Being kind to oneself and others may be the most mentally healthy thing anyone ever does, and from what Dr. Bossypants has read so far, it might make you happier too.