Mental illness is incredibly hard to understand because it is about consciousness, something which is essentially uncommunicable. People develop weird notions of mental illness, odd prejudices and the like, because they haven’t taken the time to think about why people are thinking differently, what it is to have a mental illness. Even people who do study mental illnesses don’t understand what their talking about in my opinion.
For starters, there really is no such thing as a “mental illness.” I guess if it’s an actual disease which affects the brain like mad cow disease, then it’s an illness, but if it’s not a disease, then it’s just undesirable brain patterns. What is deemed an “illness” is what is outside of the norm of human thinking, and as such the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders listed homosexuality as a mental disorder until very recently, and I believe still lists transgendered individuals as suffering from a mental disorder (there has been much talk of changing that, and it may have happened, I’m not entirely up to date). Already you can see how this is problematic, because it all seems to be relative to society, and how we feel about these people who think differently.
Mental “disorders” are all on a sliding scale, and this is something that I feel people are having much trouble grasping still. At first autism was treated as an all or none disorder, until we found that it’s a spectrum going from very autistic individuals to aspergers (highly functioning but still socially awkward) to mere introversion. I am naturally quite introverted, and when I especially feel this way I show many symptoms of autism: I focus on patterns, I find it hard to look people in the eye, and human touch is almost painful. This is all due to my perception of human social encounters as excessively complicated and impossible to sort out, and I get wrapped up in myself as a result, just as autistic people do.
An article came out today in the Huffington Post on Five Reasons to be Concerned that Your Husband is a Psychopath. I was intrigued, so I read on to the descriptions. One of the first indications of a psychopath is that they are very charming and gallant, especially in winning a woman over. According to the article they will do things like walk on the road side of a sidewalk to appear very gentlemanly. He will also have a pretty inflated self esteem, and early behavioral problems like bullying.
This sounds a lot like me. I wasn’t much of a bully, but I certainly did my share as a youngling (which I of course regret). I think pretty highly of myself too, mostly because I’ve accomplished pretty great things, and I think I’m capable of much greater achievements. I also usually place my girlfriend Io on the inside of the sidewalk to be a gentleman, though I’ve stopped doing that as much as our relationship has progressed. My motivation for this is partly a sense of duty and protection toward my girl, but I’m also quite aware that it cultivates my image as a gentleman.
My point is that we have many paradoxes at the heart of our being, especially concerning morality. Morality has an essential selfish quality to it, the thought that if I am good to others others will be good to me. It’s true that the best sense of morality is intrinsic, desiring no reward, but we must understand that even a person with a great intrinsic moral attitude must realize that they are treated better because of that attitude. so-called “psychopaths” and “sociopaths” are an extreme end of this, focusing on the manipulative aspect of our being rather than the intrinsic, but we all have some manipulation in us. When we cry we must know that it will cause others to feel like taking care of us, and when we give to the poor we know that others will act better toward us. If we give to the poor anonymously, then we are still manipulating ourselves to have an improved self image.
I’ve heard it said that schizophrenia only exists in the West. Elsewhere there are merely certain individuals who hear voices and do strange things, and sometimes these people are revered as conduits to the spiritual realm. We need to consider how to best deal with people who think differently than most, and I don’t think giving them drugs to change the way they think is the appropriate and ethical answer (unless, of course, that’s exactly what they want).