For many, mental health is seen under a binary system of judgment, where one’s mental life is either positive or negative, good or bad. A person is considered “healthy” in that they are able to function in their respective social role without detriment to self or others, or a person is considered “un-healthy” in that they are considered to have some form of illness making it impossible for them to act without causing difficulty for self or others.
While the stigma associated with mental illness has dropped considerably over the last few decades, the notion that mental lives can be either healthy or unhealthy has not. At face value, this makes sense. A tool or machine has a particular function, if it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do then it’s considered broken and repair is needed. Washing machines and stoves come under this concept and depending on one’s socio-economic status either repair or replacement is the immediate behavior at hand. The problem of applying such thinking to mental life is more than just a knee-jerk protest of revulsion that “we’re not a machine.”
Such protests are unhelpful because they’re not fully honest. When the direct comparison between a dryer and a human being is made, we recoil and shout something about a soul or an equivalent, but we often live our every day lives thinking precisely this way, just not so blatantly. Take for instance the very wording of “she’s broken” or “he has a screw loose.” Both are references to a gross mechanism concerning mental life. Take one step outward and begin replacing psychologists with repair-people, spare parts with psychotropic medication and return policies with in-patient treatment centers. The comparisons are not without some faults, as all comparisons are, but consider for a moment how much the internal revulsion and protest to doing so has more to do with the niceties concerning one’s notion of humanity than with any real acknowledgment of the similarities.
The deeper problem with viewing mental health as a hardware appliance is one of causal relationship. Appliances and tools are designed for particular tasks in particular contexts, they’re singularly focused. This is why so-called “multi-tools” are helpful, they provide multiple options in a single device to meet multiple contexts. Human minds are not focused in a similarly singular way. They’re adaptive bio-environmental interactive organisms. In other words, they exist in mutual manifestation relationships, shifting and changing even as the environment does the same through their interaction. This would be like the flat-head screwdriver touching the phillips-head screw and both the screw and driver molding together until they fit.
Mental life is not then a round peg seeking a round hole, it’s an adaptive organism, with individualized degrees of changeability. Psychological literature calls this “resilience.” Seeing mental life this way, through the lens of an adaptive relationship, has distinct consequences.
1. Mental adaptation is contingent upon two reciprocally linked and mutually manifesting organisms: the mind and the environment. Each does not exist in itself precisely the same way without the other.
2. The extent of adaptability is based on the disposition of the two organisms, e.g. the degree of potential change. Sometimes the environment is so rigid that it does not allow for much variation in being met (prisons and internment camps are examples), whereas at other times a person’s mind is so rigid that even in an environment that allows for great variety in behavior, few of those potentials are able to manifest (brain damage and ideological dogmatism are examples).
3. Any attempt at intervention will have effects on both organizational perspectives (environment and mind). In other words, a person shifts a mental paradigm, resulting in an increased potential for other behavior to emerge, the behavior happens and the environment shifts according to its own set of potentials. Think of a new level of training, or having returned from a particularly great weekend. Your behavior has shifted and the reactions of those around you have shifted with you according to their own potential, leading to a cascade of changes in the environment. Often these situations are met with the curiously banal pronouncement of “you seem different.”
In any of those consequences is there a hint of brokenness? Of illness? Of needing repair by a prognosticating expert? We don’t like being referred to as machines, but much of the way we deal with our difficulties is precisely through that metaphorical construct. Changing how we look at our mental lives is more than wording, it’s about shifting our view of how we interact with our environments; away from a one-to-one cause/effect relationship to a spectrum-within-spectrum cascading effect relationship. This doesn’t mean removing all drugs, it does mean acknowledging that we do not live our lives alone, not ever. This doesn’t mean removing all psychology professionals, it does mean noting that when we feel stuck the “answer” may be as much in our communities and environment as it is within ourselves.
© David Teachout