Are you crazy? Are you insane? Are you out of your mind? Or are you normal, regular, ordinary like anybody else? Or are you special, unusual, unique, different, extraordinary? Is it really who you are? Are there really proper adjectives to describe or even define you or me or anybody else?
These are daily philosophical questions faced by those dealing with what we call mental illnesses as doctors and patients for last 350 years of “modern” psychiatry which seemingly was emancipated from magic, spiritualism, and religious dogmas that defined mental illness as possession of the body and/or mind by evil powers. And after all these years still we have no satisfactory answers to those seemingly simple questions.
The book “Beautiful Mind” by Sylvia Nasar attempted, in good fate to bring up a story about late mathematician John F. Nash, Jr (1928-2015) to attention of mainstream and in the process to address social stigma of mental illness that still persist within media, society including social establishment. But unfortunately author only went so far into puzzle of mental illness of otherwise brilliant mind leaving fundamental questions about social pre-conditions as unexamined or undisclosed triggers of the disease that were never posited or addressed.
The one of other popular books namely “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey also attempted to provide honest view of mental diseases and their treatments but suffered the same deficiency i.e. lack of wider sociopolitical context of the disease and instead focused almost exclusively on otherwise also important humanity of mentally ill individuals confronted with calcified medical system.
In this post I will try to modestly address some of the ramifications of mental illnesses, their illusive causes and often misguided treatments not from medical point of view but from philosophical and social perspective.
So let’s ask these unasked questions. What does it mean to be “normal”? What does it mean to be yourself? Who are we really? Who says we’re normal or not?
Since early days of modern psychiatry being “normal” was “scientifically” defined as sharing overwhelming majority of physical and mental attributes, behaviors and capacities considered “natural” to a human within closed community, rendering remaining people by definition abnormal, unfit, strange and/or insane and commonly rejected, alienated from society with almost no material or moral foundation of such a “scientific” judgment about nature of human being.
It is especially disturbing since no objective moral judgment about “nature of human being” is possible since humans in contrast to animals have no essence that precedes existence. In other words, there is nothing that strictly defines attributes or capacities or behaviors of a human being beyond physical limitations. There is nothing biological in our characteristics or behavior to define what it means to be a human except for arbitrary societal assertion. The only “natural” characteristic of human being we can assert for sure is overwhelming need to belong to a group and desire to gain group’s acceptance and protection.
Hence, so-called “normalcy” of an individual is nothing but an arbitrary declaration by organized group or community stemming from affirmation of social structure, order and hierarchical control rather than characteristics of an individual. While those excluded from scope of such arbitrary declaration are considered abnormal by default.
For example strict vegetarian among carnivorous tribe would be declared abnormal and potentially excluded from society, believer in Moon would be excluded from society of worshipers of the Sun and declared unsocial or amoral, or possessed by evil, insane or equivalent.
But why? Why such people are often excluded from society or pushed to the margins? Why are they frequently isolated, harassed abandoned or expelled? Is it just because they behave differently, look differently, choose differently or believe differently than majority in their own society?
No. These are not true reasons for alienation of “abnormal” people from society in most cases. The true reason for rejection of people with certain “abnormal” attributes is, justified or not, a perception that these people are threats to social order and power structure supporting that order. However, some abnormalities within society that could be perceived as benign and are sometimes tolerated, in a sense understood not as a marginal acceptance but as milder form of alienation.
For example strict vegetarian among carnivore tribe, would potentially cause split among tribal members and temper their willingness to kill and hence weaken tribe’s critical ability to feed and defend themselves while those with mixed diet could be tolerated. Similarly, religious leaders of society of worshipers of Sun would perceive worshiping of Moon as direct challenge to their dogmatic rule based on perceived utility and power of the Sun, and hence may diminish their ability to control their society while those worshiping both might be marginally tolerated. Similarly, if individual refuses to work for benefit of community it may negatively impact other’s motivation due to perceived sense of unfairness regardless of reasons for dissent while temporary refrainment from work could sometimes be justified and tolerated.
It is likely that specific exclusions, in whatever form or manifestation, of individual members of society with “abnormal” attributes, behaviors or attitudes are made in large part along political/social/cultural lines as perceived by power elites, in rather subjective, irrational or inconsistent ways often just serving contemporary political needs no matter how “justified” they may seem.
The resulting exclusion or ostracism, in form of abandonment, intimidation or brutality, however, has devastating effects on rejected individuals of human society since we are naturally social “creatures” unfit physically or mentally for desolate life in harsh physical or social environment for longer periods of time. That is placing enormous mental and physical stress with devastating consequences of overall human health due to nutritional deficiencies and mental instability caused by continuous threat to basic safety and security as socially unprotected outcasts.
Such prolonged state of extreme social stress leads inevitably to electrochemical imbalance in the brain resulting in impaired faculties and often audiovisual hallucinations furthering deterioration of general health. In other words, psychological and physical, socially induced excessive survival stress alone may likely be a cause of development of symptoms of what we would call severe mental distress but not yet clinical illness in majority of cases where no internal somatic neurological pathologies have ever been present.
It is likely a social mechanism of continuous and progressing alienation, including social attitudes and medical treatments of symptoms that seem to be responsible for deliberate process of development of most of so-called psychosomatic mental illnesses within human population including depression or addiction as well as most severe diseases like schizophrenia or catatonia in much longer term.
It does not take much of rational analysis to realize that most of mental disorders as described and classified in DSM-IV are probably caused or are strongly correlated with prolonged social alienation episodes where individuals in forced or self-imposed solitude struggle to come to grips or even to acknowledge the fact of rejection from family or community, rejection for which rationale they failed to even conceive or understand. The acute inability of an individual to deal with actual or perceived acts of continuous betrayal by people in position of trust reinforces frequent disruption of life routines, including deterioration of social or economic relations and other devastating alienation effects.
I would encourage a reader to review the below list and brief clinical description (if not DSM-IV) in order to gain a glimpse into true attitude of medical professionals toward mental disease as socially disruptive social behavior:
There is no doubt in my mind that what we commonly call mental illness and what’s very instructively called by medical professionals as a mental disorder, is a social disease a consequence of specific social relations formed within society and controlled by social structure that rejects individuals if their perceived “abnormalities” threaten existing social order and/or position of social elite that benefits from it.
These are not radical assertions but mainstream scientific findings precisely formulated in second half XX century and briefly implemented as part of social policies in selected countries of world, unfortunately mostly abandoned today.
The urgency to address mental disorders is not as much due to disruptions of individual life, however severe, but rather due to potential instigation of social disorder or disruption that suffering individual may cause within family community or society at large and that’s why requires patient isolation and treatment.
However, some departure from perceived normality is partially tolerated, when impact on direct interests of ruling elites and social order on balance are not well-defined or particular political decision has been made. And hence self-treatments of the social rejection, alienation and/or ensuing mental desolation by means alcohol, drug, gambling, manic sexual addiction/abuse and distraction/entertainment addiction/abuse type of individual or group activities are tolerated and often effectively promoted due to economical or cultural control advantages as perceived by the elites despite devastating social costs due to increased crime, violence and costly associated somatic diseases such as heart, liver, kidney diseases and STD.
If some members of society assert their attributes by refusal to submit to immediate authority for rational reasons not even openly challenging legitimacy of the authority, they would be rendered abnormal and severely punished while the same effective rejection of authority’s orders or expectations while drunk or high or sick would be “understood” while still officially condemned.
Such attitude is beneficial for maintaining however, unjust or destructive social order since it shifts attention and blame from the problem of social alienation and rejection of those who seek social autonomy, independence, freedom or just individual respect, potentially threatening calcified social structure, toward supposed psychological, psychiatric or social problems of true or imaginary foes of society, presented as victims of their own doing.
The rejection and isolation of most rendered “abnormal” is happening within their communities or on their margins and is enforced by social/cultural attitudes and propaganda of educational, legal or medical authority imposed by all permeating social power structures over most of population.
Some individuals rendered extremely dangerous to social order, i.e. those who outside structure of control organize social, cultural, economic, political or quasi-military groups (labeled as criminal), , aimed to defend their socially unique attributes, however understood rights or just to survive onslaught of the state are being executed, physically tortured and/or isolated from community for many years and locked up in state prison system or forced to exile.
Such political decisions and often brutal actions by the system are precisely and falsely justified to populace through elaborated charade of legal and court maneuvers with support of medical establishment aimed to obfuscate their true purpose namely isolation of those “abnormal” to maintain political power grip on society.
No wonder why after advent of modern psychotropic drugs, that replaced other previously broadly used barbaric methods of silencing or pacifying population of social dissenters (through electrical shocks or lobotomy) or those subjectively rendered unfit or abnormal, authorities were able to medically administer “appropriate” treatments in outpatient settings. As a result prisons quickly turned into huge medieval-like mental institutions of torture without even thin façade of Hippocratic principles at works. It is not an accident that prisons assumed role of shut down mental health institutions in US and now hold tens of thousands those officially diagnosed as mentally ill and hundred of thousands of inmates suffering under extreme stress of incarceration who did not yet show clinical symptoms compatible to those described in DSM-IV.
Most stringent methods of elimination or alienation of those rendered abnormal unfit for their arbitrarily set purpose within society as defined by ruling elite, are applied to system enforcement organizations and security agencies including military and police force. Here we see openly on display for those who care to look, true face of system of power that presents itself as enlightened or benign but in fact is nothing but totalitarian, mafia style regime with sliver for a margin of tolerance if any.
The officers and soldiers, facing or participating in often completely senseless brutality, they do not understand, and witnessing human suffering daily, are not immune to the reality and their basic morality is severely tested daily. Their thoughts, doubts, their individual moral judgments and rational analysis are suppressed much stronger than in any other social group. They know that they would be promptly isolated from their community if rendered as threatening to social order within their group, enormously increasing stress that, if prolonged, likely causing effects bordering with symptoms of severe mental illness.
So-called law enforcement and military personnel are effectively all on legal/illegal drugs, booze and/or in “therapy” just after few years on the street or months on the frontline and those who are not, deteriorate into psychopathic mental state of inhumanity promoted as necessary and rewarded often by high command through professional advancement and economic opportunities offered by power elites. In such conditions of persistent violation of individual morality and overall humanity in order to follow orders, out of control crime culture was developed within the ranks who are often in such confusion that renders them unable to tell right from wrong legal from illegal or moral from immoral, suffering from symptoms of mental instability while exposed to highly stressed and alienated segment of civilian population.
The pressure on anyone to be “normal” within system of skewed, insane normalcy is causing deep internal moral conflicts and isolation due to mental alienation from their peers since no questions may be asked, no doubts shared within unified militaristic culture of stringent collectivism liken to fascism existing within law enforcement community. It often leads to severe symptoms of depression or other mental illnesses primarily suffered by those who refuse to submit to arbitrary norms after their moral, rational, judicial analysis of the merits of their true role and function in society is internally self-acknowledged and recognized.
In other words holding on desperately to sanity within rational but insane social structure often is perceived as a symptom of mental illness by ruling elites. While police-on-citizen brutality periodically enters MSM headlines there is dead silence about all too often police-on-police brutality and rape or federal agent-on-agent brutality or murder or soldier-on soldier torture or atrocity, short of spectacular cases that cannot be denied or suppressed.
Instead, these telling stories are being spun beyond recognition by law enforcement/quasi-patriotic propaganda. Suddenly, fine officers yesterday affine to angels of morality, goodness and professionalism today are turned into ruthless immoral thugs out there set to destroy serenity of loving law enforcement family.
The same attitudes of disregard toward conscientious objectors of senseless brutality in military organizations where PTSD war and peace victims are isolated and not allowed to communicate their rational conclusions about their true programmatic role and function in perpetrating atrocities supposedly in the name of national security interests and instead are being isolated diminished, ridiculed enforcing or instigating further mental episodes.
This lack of understanding and compassion not only extends to veteran or military administration but sadly to victim’s families, supporters of the regime, who are often in dramatic denial of what their sons and daughters have become as a result of mental or physical injury after participating in the war. The veterans of the wars that insist on telling the truth about horrors and absurdity of war and refuse to parrot patriotic nonsense are branded abnormal, weak-minded, mentally ill or anti-American and thrown away to the margins of society into poverty and desperation.
In itself social stress is naturally occurring within complex societies and its potentially negative effects could be easily mitigated through all-inclusive societal guidance of an individuals, based on acquired, skills and character into their proper position within society at appropriate stage in the life cycle instead of alienation of individuals unable or unwilling to conform to arbitrary social norms.
Unfortunately, in complex societies, we are rarely dealing with dynamic, dialectic social processes but instead we are facing arbitrary command and control social structure run by power elites, which retain monopoly of decisions about role, and formal position of an individual within society. And hence apparent necessity to render those unfit as abnormal, antisocial or mentally ill and remove them to the margin of society as perceived threats to social order.
Sadly in most cases this very estrangement from patients’ families and communities under tremendous stress is likely a cause rather than the result of behavioral and/or biological changes sometimes observed in human neurological system associated with mental disorder. Such alienation in a sense is creating and reinforcing illness by the treatments that suppose to provide cure or at least to alleviate the symptoms.
Many people under tremendous mental pressure to perform as required by the system are conditioned to, metaphorically speaking, “escape” into fantasy world often leading to mental illness as only allowed way out, only allowed way to say no, to stand against the unbearable pressure pushing them to continue violating individual moral norms under the guise of higher good or propaganda of suppose will of the community. The others judged unfit or abnormal are conditioned or directly forced to “choose” suicide as ultimate alienation act from society that rejected them. Such cases are very well documented in military and police annals as well in patient records of medical institutions.
With exception of somatic cases of injury or deviation from neurophysiology, mental illness is a social in nature as was widely recognized as such but the proposed and often implemented attitudes and methods were opposite to what they should be. The treatment was almost exclusively focused on individual and in small part on family but never on wider community or heinous social structures, which were removed from the scope of medical inquiry rendering it mostly ineffective.
No wonder that after over three hundred years of modern psychiatry not a single case of cure was ever documented and no single biological definition of the mental disease have ever been developed. Instead massive, often barbaric surgical, electrical shock or pharmacological treatments have been devised achieving merely suppression of high brain functions including personality alteration and rendering patients dead or permanently injured and unable to function in the society to satisfactory degree.
Massive commercially instigated, addictions and phobias or politically motivated fears of “alien” enemy of the state insidiously found their way to DSM-IV clinical disorder manual under medical authority and as a consequence fuel massive brain and/or neurosystem overdosing operation perpetrated over population as a matter of national economic policy and political control rendering more and more population as criminal, abnormal or mentally disturbed and hence excluded from political process.
Are people really mentally ill or are they just unable or unwilling to conform to stringent norms of society setup and brutally enforced down to single individual by autocratic ruling elites?
In my opinion majority of people being officially diagnosed with mental illness were not sick when they first time enter physician office at least in western world. They were just under tremendous stress stemming from alienation from their social or physical environment such family, home, school, work, or caused by individual reaction to indifference or ignoring a cry for help by those unjustly suffering from condemnation or rejection.
Often they were unable to precisely articulate all those ills or problems and rarely found true un-negotiated by big pharma, support or understanding of reality of their life circumstances or acknowledgement of appropriateness of their judgment, behavior or reaction to injustice or immorality of social system shockingly discovered to be supported even by their closest family or love ones.
These were people initially with no mental problems but mostly with economic and social problems of breaking up of intimate trust in social relations and instead replacing them with those negotiated by power or money or narrow individual interest. We all know those sorry life stories.
What they were told, however, is that alienation and rejection they are suffering from is their problem alone and the only way to solve it is to change attitude, acquire positive outlook on all this horrible situation of betrayal, immorality, and exploitation, via psychotherapy and/or pharmacological intervention, highly questionable propaganda methods of positive psychology.
They were “effectively” told by psychiatrists that it was them behaving abnormally since normal person would have no problem accepting injustice, immorality, brutality, threats and intimidation like anybody else and submit to it with sadomasochistic pleasure, approval or even gratitude and only then being allow for return to “normal” society. Such attitude amounts to indirect admission that these patients were actually victims of the systems and hence what they are suffering from is a form of punishment by society for unspecified crime of disobedience and hence they are obligated to accept it or redeem themselves through submission.
It was social neglect as well as such demeaning attitude of psychiatrists, psychologists and other medical professionals and results of disastrous medical treatments, bordering with torture, that were mostly responsible for development and entrenchment of the acute psychosomatic symptoms classified as severe mental disorders.
I believe that story of mental illness of John Nash is at least in part, a story of acute social alienation from cold war stricken paranoid society of fear conditioned by ruling elites, following by misconstrued and misguided often barbaric psychiatric treatment that lead to unnecessary brain injury and impairment of Nash’s neurological functions for decades. But this aspect of Nash affair was completely ignored and never acknowledged in book or media.
The elephant in the room is the fact that in nineteen fifties 90+ percent of Ivy League school faculties in scientific fields were secretly or not so secretly militarized and co-opted to work for national security establishment. There was tremendous pressure on the faculty members and even students to join clandestine operations even against their will or moral anti-war attitudes or beliefs under threats of loosing their academic status or even job or pension.
It was common practice openly discussed on faculty meetings to coordinate research and education programs to produce scientific “soldiers” using DoD funding. Much better known now, was similar program of militarization of soviet science and technology with comparable to US operational procedures.
What we also know is that especially after Rosenbergs’ affair and execution 1953, the counter espionage hysteria reached zenith on both sides of conflict. The charges of sedition were often based on personally motivated false accusation and as a consequence broke mentally many scientists, who began to doubt about sense or true objectives of these top-secret, expensive and often nonsensical needlessly classified defense programs.
What often brilliant and highly intelligent scientists saw through smoke and mirrors of military propaganda was not fulfillment of national defense needs but rather totalitarian degeneration of power structure, power out of control, without any checks and balances becoming the only objective even if it would senselessly endanger human race with nuclear war.
Executions of many scientist in the midst of cold war and countless others “tortured” within soviet mental hospital system after being “diagnosed” with schizophrenia, paranoid delusions or other equally made up diagnoses were revealed in early 1990-ties as victims of systematic methods of silencing of political descent among soviet scientific elites.
The beautiful story of John Nash was never addressed or even discussed in such a context.
Nash was very sensitive person all along, with soul of art rather than science even in adulthood. He was very talented and passionate in all the fields of academic excellence and because of it somewhat alienated from community in childhood and in adolescent life similarly to Bobby Fisher. They both probably suffered from mild social phobia and saw their talents as a way of safely communicating with society at large and be accepted and recognized by it.
Even in his twenties Nash was so entrenched in world of scientific theories that he was practically socially unaware of degree of social strive, authority, money and power that strictly define position of individual in the society. His choice of mathematics was probably not due to particular interest in the field but rather a way to avoid hard choices, to avoid giving up on something, not knowing precisely what it was to give up. He wanted to hide from compromise, avoiding what for him amounted to a guess with consequences for the rest of his life, a choice expected from every ordinary adult but always difficult for extraordinarily talented individuals.
He used his extraordinary faculties to please others in the social group but most of all for himself to satisfy his unlimited curiosity. It was clearly shown during his graduate study when he excelled in everything he was assigned to but had extreme difficulty regarding choice his original idea for dissertation work, which almost cost him PhD degree. He did not have this arrogant, unconstrained drive toward set objectives, with razor-sharp focus, no matter what, against all odds, with all priories rescinded, often self-destructive attitude that is common among scientific geniuses.
Such sensitive man exposed to tremendous pressures of strict, militarized production-like academic schedule as well as extremely restricting military rigor of DoD research into cryptography and pattern recognition would definitely develop internal moral conflicts, which in his case may have resulted in what would be perceived as a “mental instability” and enough to render him a potential threat to security of classified information he was privy to.
Whether or not he was declared by authorities as abnormal, non-conforming to his classified duties or mentally ill and simply silenced by US national security establishment under guise of psychiatric treatment in manner similar to his fellow Russian conscientious objectors who were tortured in Soviet mental institutions I do not now, but it is viable question, answer to which we can only hope to hear from his memoirs if they are ever published.
As philosopher David Hume already concluded in XVII century after studying mental institutions in Europe, for many patients diagnosed with so-called mental diseases, including schizophrenia, the disease represented patient way out, of conundrum where no acceptable moral choice can be made, into world of insanity.
If this is applicable to Nash case, that would explain reported miraculous recovery extraordinary feat in annals of psychiatry that was never recorded before and since. In other words we could speculate that he may have never been truly mentally ill before he entered the medical treatment but simply responded as any human being to overwhelming pressure to conform to calcified social structure, serving causes of militarism and war demanding abandonment of basic morality or humanity and metaphorically “chose” this kind of way out from this unsolvable life conundrum.
Unfortunately, highly “advanced” back then but truly barbaric psychiatric treatment, including electrical and chemical shocks in US mental hospitals severely injured or impaired Nash’s mathematical and other abilities so during following decades he recovered basic mathematical skills at Ph.D. level with difficulty and mentally recovered mostly due to love and care of those around him who knew that old brilliant John Nash was gone forever.
John Nash had gentle and beautiful mind likely saved by inclusion, love and acceptance by his family, friends and wider society in form of late professional recognition and not by medical miracle but there was much more to his life story, suffering and struggle, we will never know.
We should not be afraid to look beyond prejudice and discomfort of talking about mental disease in all its social and medical ramifications. We should inquire into rampant psychiatric abuses of human beings only striving to understand each other and shed light on carefully disguised horrors of power elite controlled social system of physical and mental pressure, illusory rewards of power and opulence and real punishments via exclusion, alienation, enslavement, poverty, repression and insidious manipulation of human being’s innate need to belong.
Do we have enough courage to ask ourselves who is actually mentally healthy and who is insane? Because if we don’t somebody else will.