There was a prompt I saw two months ago: “Placebo Effect: If you could create a painless, inexpensive cure for a single ailment, what would you cure and why?”
Using it as an exercise, I started to draft a blog post about how I would want to cure mental disorders. Sure, it might be an umbrella term, covering a variety of conditions instead of just a single ailment, but ‘cancer’ and ‘autoimmune disease’ are also umbrella terms for conditions that we’d all love to find a single, painless, inexpensive cure for.
But here’s the thing: curing cancer would solve The Problem. If you take the cancer out of someone’s body and ensure that no cancer will ever show up again, all would be well. Even if the cause of the cancer—genetics, carcinogens—is still present, would it really matter? Would it matter if you have one of the BRCA genes if cancer couldn’t touch you? Not really.
But to take the mental illness out of the person? To just reach in and flip a switch to adjust the hormones, to increase the excitation of inhibited regions of the cortex or decrease activity in hyperactive lobes? Will that fix the problem?
It will most certainly cure the condition. And, if I was ever given the chance to disseminate this cure to the world, I most certainly would.
But there’s a huge problem that ending mental disorders within the individual does not address. Jiddu Krishnamurti puts it perfectly:
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
Our Profoundly Sick Society
Mental illness can be debilitating. As someone who used to engage in acts of self-injury as a young child, I can personally attest to this. And although no one—myself included—can imagine what it feels like to have a mental illness or disorder that is not their own, I think we can all agree that no one deserves to feel that way.
We should do everything in our power to ensure that anyone who suffers from a mental disorder receives help. We should expand mental health care access to underserved communities, figure out ways to make mental health services affordable—because even upper middle-class families can find it hard to pay for decent help—and continue to develop better therapies and medicines that increase patient outcomes while decreasing negative side effects.
However, if we’re ever to fix The Problem—the root cause, the core issue of our mental health epidemic—we need to look beyond the day that symptoms first occurred. We need to look at the society that causes so many of us to develop these problems.
We all have predispositions to certain problems. Some of them are physical—like how I have a predisposition for deep venous thrombosis—and some of them—like when you look at the prevalence of anxiety disorders in my family—are psychological. But, in the same way that my siblings suffer from anxiety and I don’t (and I get blood clots and they don’t) a predisposition doesn’t mean that you will develop a disorder no matter what. It just increases the likelihood. And while it is very plausible that certain mental illnesses would still exist in a perfectly functioning society, the environments that we’re subjected to day in and day out can greatly increase our risk of developing a full-blown mental health condition.
And even if the disorder isn’t full blown, I’m willing to bet that you can’t walk into a middle school and find more than a handful of well-adjusted kids.
I find it hard to believe that teenage angst is a product of evolution, in the same way I refuse to believe that 10-year-olds dieting because they hate their bodies is “natural.” We created this dysfunctional world, and it is giving rise to dysfunctional mental states.
At some point, we decide that the dysfunction is ‘bad’ enough to warrant a diagnosis, a treatment. But we shouldn’t wait for the 10-year-olds who diet to become 17-year-olds with bulimia before doing something about it. Yes, I’d love to have a switch that turns off the self-hatred, the obsession, the compulsion to binge or purge, the anxiety, the guilt, the shame, everything that comes with an eating disorder—but an eating disorder is a symptom of a much larger problem that we ignore.
What Are We Supposed to Do?
Am I saying that what we need is utopia? No. But I think we need to recognize when situations or norms are artificially toxic, and that a hundred different, toxic social structures pouring down on a plastic mind can severely impact someone’s development and happiness later in life. We need to realize that, as Jeanette Winterson said in parallel to Krishnamurti, “To be ill adjusted to a deranged world is not a breakdown.” In other words, many mental health conditions are understandable, human reactions to our toxic society. Natural reactions to an unnaturally problematic world.
I’m also saying that our efforts to combat mental illness need to be two-fold. Not only do we need vastly better mental health funding, access to treatment, proactive intervention, rigorous research, widespread acceptance, cheaper treatment options, and a whole slew of other things to combat mental health crises, but we also need to work on preventing as many mental health crises as we can. We need to work to reduce the artificial toxicity that permeates our children’s lives, and we need to promote the resiliency and skills children need to handle life when life invariably gets bad. Prevention and treatment are both vital to combat our mental health epidemic, and they should be treated as such.
The problem is, mental health funding is so limited that to focus on prevention in our current state would take away already meager funding for treatment. Our sick world extends beyond toxic environments—it’s in our policies, our priorities, our ignorance, our apathy. We have created a mental health epidemic but we’re unwilling to do anything about it.
So, honestly, when we’re trying to figure out who deserves the label crazy, I think we can all agree it’s not the person with mental illness, but those of us who see the status quo and think that that’s a perfectly reasonable way for our sick society to exist.