Mental Illness, Part 2

Mental Illness, Part 2

We don’t live in the world of reality, we live in the world of how we perceive reality. Filmmaker Bryan Singer[1]

Last week I defined mental illness as behavior outside of societal norms. I will now visually represent my understanding of that definition. My basic assumption is that our individual and societal norms are a product of the portion of reality we attend to, individually and as a society. Everything outside of that portion of reality is unreal to us, as if it does not exist. In addition, we label those who may be attending to other portions of reality as mentally ill whenever their behavior becomes troublesome.

Figure 1 represents one person’s reality, inside of circle A. If we assume that area A includes everything this person can perceive – physically, intellectually, and emotionally – then everything in area D (outside the circle) is unreal to that person. For example, we know our physical eyes are capable of perceiving only a tiny fraction of the entire light spectrum. What they cannot perceive is in area D. It is not that area D does not exist; we simply do not have eyes capable of perceiving it. Microscopes, telescopes, infrared imaging, and other visual instruments prove the existence of realities beyond our unaided sight. Likewise, our ears only perceive a limited range of auditory frequencies, so while a regular whistle exists in area A, a dog whistle exists in area D (unless you’re a dog).

Other determinants of what is in area A or D for a specific individual include their emotional and intellectual abilities to perceive. Unless we are trained in advanced mathematics, Calculus will exist in area D where it is unreal to us because it makes no sense. Our ability to process emotions is dependent on our emotional maturity. Emotions that fall into area A for one person may well fall into area D for another. Those emotions are thus unreal to the second person and cannot be understood and sometimes not even acknowledged.

Whatever falls into area D for a given individual is outside of their conscious reality. Just because what exists in area D is unreal for one person, however, does not mean it does not exist, only that everything in area D is unavailable to or unconscious for that person. Education, life experiences, cross-cultural and spiritual training can expand area A into greater parts of area D.

Figure 2 represents the realities of two people, A and C. Area B shows where their realities intersect as a shared reality. Area D is outside of reality for both people. Because their shared realities include a relatively small portion of their individual realities, these two people likely share little in common. They can increase their shared area, B, through the expansion of their circles of awareness into more of the other person’s circle.

Figure 3 represents the combined realities of many people, such as a community or society, where the overlapping circles, A, represent what is real to representative members of that group. Area B represents their shared reality, or what they all agree is real and are capable of understanding and attending to. Area D represents what is unreal to everyone in this society. Whatever exists in area B establishes the norms for this society.

Figure 4 represents a community’s reality, but with a couple types of deviations from that reality, or what we diagnose as mental deficiency or illness. Circle B represents someone who can only perceive a small portion of the greater shared social reality (A). Person B has difficulty being fully functional in the larger social context (A) because so much of it is unreal to him or her.

Circle C represents someone whose perceptual reality is completely outside of the societal reality. In this case, the person likely sees or hears things no one else sees or hears, so we diagnose them as schizophrenic, psychotic, or some other form of mental illness. For most such people, their circle of reality remains at least partly within the societal circle, so some people in the common reality can still connect with them, although in severely limited ways. Area D, of course, represents what remains unreal, imperceptible, to everyone.

When I define mental illness as behavior outside of societal norms, I refer to behaviors that are either far enough outside of or too restricted within the common circles, represented by area A in Figure 4, to be noticeable and troublesome. There are numerous limitations to what individuals and societies perceive as real – physical, intellectual, and emotional – none of which is proof that whatever is in their unreal category, area D in the diagrams, does not exist in other perceptions of reality. I will expand on these representations in the coming weeks.

This is the 18th 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 me, please contact me at

[1], accessed September 27, 2022.

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