Mental Illness

Mental Illness

In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, “Let us alone! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?

Luke 4:33-34a.

Four months ago I began what I thought would be a brief series of Life Notes titled Guns, Mental Illness, and Jesus in response to the most recent (at the time) mass shooting incident, this one at a school in Uvalde, Texas. With so much passionate support for the Second Amendment and its right to bear arms coming from the Christian “Right”, as a Christian myself, I felt the need to push back against the entirely un-Christ-like arguments for self-defense, which is a primary tenet of most justifications for wide-spread individual gun ownership. The human-created right to self-defense inhibits meaningful work to address the worst violence plaguing our society. Self-defense, however, is completely out of character with the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, the supposed source of our Christian beliefs.

With this Life Note I shift the focus to mental illness, which is always a factor in acts of violence and mass murder. Although I will treat mental illness as a separate cause of violence, it does not stand apart from our social systems and norms. Mental illness exists on a continuum, and we all display greater or lesser degrees of it depending on the internal or external situations we find ourselves in. Although mental illness is typically understood and treated as a medical condition, I will argue it is equally a social condition – that families, communities, and other environmental influences contribute to or exacerbate the deviations from societal norms that result in mental illness.

Let me begin with a disclaimer: I am an arm-chair psychologist, not a professional. Although I have a decades-old degree in Psychology, lived experience with mentally ill family members, and some training in crisis counseling, I am not qualified to diagnose or treat mental illness. As such, what follows are the reflections of a psychological outsider, an outsider-looking-in, and should not be taken as advice for dealing with behavioral deviations in oneself or loved ones. What follows are generalized perspectives and observations on a serious issue, not solutions to specific cases.

Here is a simple definition of mental illness: behavior outside of societal norms. Mental illness can be acute, meaning short-term, or chronic, meaning expressing over an extended timespan. We can slip into and out of the realm of mental illness for a few minutes, as in a momentary fit of rage, or for decades. Because this definition is grounded in societal norms, some behaviors that result in being labeled as mentally ill change with times, places, and cultures. In that sense, mental illness can be contextual or time-space-and-culture-dependent. Truly, some who were considered mentally disturbed when alive are admired, posthumously, for their brilliance today. I think of artists like Vincent Van Gogh and composers like Robert Schumann. Theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s musings were roundly rejected as heretical by his religious superiors. We sometimes say these people were ahead of their time as we look back on their social interactions and work because they were often shunned by their peers and sometimes died broke and alone. Ludwig van Beethoven and Abraham Lincoln were likely candidates for a mental illness diagnosis. Even Jesus was accused of having a demon, a first-century reference likely corresponding to mental illness, by the religious authorities of his day. The other point from my definition is that mental illness involves behavior. Many of us think of seriously deviating from social norms, but until we actually act on those thoughts, including making them known to others, we are not labeled as mentally disturbed.

I emphasize the time-space-culture component of mental illness to illustrate that mental and emotional deviations cannot be understood outside of their specific context. Does the fact that someone does not blend well with their environment warrant the label of mentally ill? Perhaps, but not necessarily, because many of us do not blend well in certain environments. Because we cannot know what is going on inside another, human motivations for behavior remain mysterious. The fact that some who do not blend well with their environment strike out in ways that cause tragic devastation and suffering, however, cannot be denied. As such, mental illness cannot be ignored or minimized.

Mental illness, in a sense I will develop in the coming weeks, involves social isolation. Today, social isolation combined with our unprecedented access to and inescapable bombardment from biased news reporting, divisive social media posts, and the virtual realms of online chats and gaming, the gap between individual and societal factions grows rapidly and increasingly wider. Does that mean most of us are now mentally ill? More next week…

This is the 17th in a series of Life Notes titled Guns, Mental Illness, and Jesus. The opinions expressed here are mine and are not intended to imply the agreement or support of other individuals or organizations. If you wish to engage with my thoughts, or if you would like to explore contemplative spiritual direction, please contact me directly at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com.

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