As several authorities* over time have researched, documented, and reported, there is no “mental illness.” It is not an “illness”, as practitioners of psychiatry using the medical model, have long conjectured without evidence. There are no “them” with mental illness and “us” without. How we interact with the world does not conform to the construct of illness in physical health, nor can it be treated using that construct to intervene when life challenges arise.
Instead, as I have experienced personally, with family members, and with those I have served, there appears to be a continuum of emotional vulnerability in play daily for all of us, with each of us experiencing fluctuating manifestations of those vulnerabilities in our unique and individual ways. For example, some individuals can be seriously “thrown off” by a sequence of personal financial challenges; others by their spouses suddenly being inexplicably absent in the evenings from the home; or adolescents being bullied on social media, etc.
Many individuals by sheer happenstance do not encounter too many serious challenges to their vulnerabilities over a lifetime, but if any one of us encounters what is for us a severe stressor which matches what is for us a serious personal vulnerability, we as normal human beings will begin to “teeter” or “wobble,” and then begin compensating to maintain some internal sense of balance.
For some, based on the unique vulnerabilities we have and our unique compensatory responses, we might begin malfunctioning by drinking more, working more hours, experiencing auditory hallucinations, yelling at the kids more, becoming paranoid, experiencing physical ailments, etc.
In an objective sense and apart from stigmatizing stereotypes, no one kind of malfunctioning is more serious than the other, and this compensatory process is equally serious from one of us to another when we are the one caught and don’t know how to escape the challenge. And for those with trauma histories, as supported by the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) research, trauma can exacerbate our naturally occurring vulnerabilities and/or become its own. Or not. It is amazingly very unique to each of us and our individual life experiences, and some individuals find support and help before the worst might develop.
We are all in this together. But our fear of disclosing our own vulnerabilities keeps us from sharing what we are experiencing and discovering how we all are similar in this dynamic process.
Many of us plainly don’t want to look stupid or feel vulnerable or unsafe. Some of us have vulnerabilities we can cover more easily in their lesser manifestations, while others of us have vulnerabilities not so easily disguised. But stigma prevents our disclosure of these normal challenges to our vulnerabilities and finding support through mutual sharing; and even among the so-called “mentally ill,” some with one diagnosis will look at others with different patterns as being “lesser.”
I am a person with lived experience of “mental illness,” also having grown up experiencing a couple of family members displaying openly or covertly their own brands of malfunction. In my unique experience, at a very early age, my mother helped me develop an ability to use intellectual methods and socialization practice at home in private to publicly disguise the manifestations of Asperger’s Syndrome and serious trauma experiences.
I became “good to go” most of the time in public while performing, but my adult personal life in my 20’s was another story. I was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 22, and it was only in my later years that I encountered what is known as the Recovery Movement in mental health led by individuals with “lived experience,” and the telling of our stories where I finally began disclosing what I had kept secret pretty well my whole adult life.
Still, there were events in my life where the reality of my challenges almost exploded into full view. My relatively newfound self-acceptance and truth-telling is still in development and challenging, but as with all forms of secreted and feared personal characteristics, the growing satisfaction of no longer spending so much emotional energy on concealment is very rewarding.
I have been, and will be, both us and them. Speaking openly is a path to wellness, acceptance, and mutual support. We truly all need each other.
Thomas Steven Szasz. (1961). The myth of mental illness: foundations of a theory of personal conduct. Hoeber-Harper
Szasz, T. S. (1960). The myth of mental illness. American Psychologist, 15(2), 113-118.
Szasz, T. S. (1961). The uses of naming and the origin of the myth of mental illness. American Psychologist, 16(2), 59-65.
Hanna Pickard In Matthew Broome & Lisa Bortolotti (eds.). (2009). Mental illness is indeed a myth: Psychiatry as Cognitive Neuroscience. Oxford University Press.
Adams, H. B. (1964). “Mental illness” or interpersonal behavior? American Psychologist, 19(3), 191-197.
E. Kendell. (2001). The distinction between mental and physical illness. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 178: 490-493.
Summerfield, Derek. (2008). How scientifically valid is the knowledge base of global mental health? BMJ, 336: 992.
Jacek/Jack Haciak, Psy.D.
Dr. Haciak is a retired Licensed Psychologist and program administrator now providing consultation, advocacy, and training in Oregon and nationally. His history of clinical work, administration, and advocacy has spanned four decades and five states. He currently serves on Advisory Boards and provides legislative support on issues by which mental health Recovery Principles and Peer Support values can be meaningfully integrated into all mental health laws and operations. He now incorporates his own history of lived experience with mental health challenges into his work to fortify the principles and values he addresses.