Mental Illness, Part 6

Mental Illness, Part 6

Serious mental illness is a mental, behavioral or emotional disorder…resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.

American Psychiatric Association[1]

Last week I used Figure 4 to illustrate how my brother’s manic episodes seemingly shifted his perceived reality, circle C, outside of the perceived reality of most of the rest of us, circle A. Behaviors outside of accepted societal norms are considered abnormal.

This week I consider circle B, which is a severely limited perception of reality within the accepted societal norms (A), but that rejects significant portions of those greater norms, often violently. To illustrate the point I use an extreme and violent example from the last century, Adolph Hitler. One of Hitler’s stated aims was to evolve a superior race of people. He (supposedly) envisioned a pure race that eliminated or reduced human illness, physical and mental disabilities, and other “infirmities” he believed plagued humanity. Of course, Hitler’s vision of a “pure” race was Aryan (meaning non-Jewish), Caucasian, and of Nordic descent. Hitler’s skewed circle of reality was like area B – acceptance of only a small portion of the greater social reality. Tragically, Hitler had the charisma to sell his warped vision to a wounded nation, along with the means to wreak havoc and terror on the world for many years as he attempted to shrink society’s area A into circle B.

Hitler’s “goal” (no doubt a cover for his prejudicial obsession with power) of reducing illness and functional inabilities is within the socially acceptable norms of circle A. What made him crazy and dangerous was his refusal to acknowledge the worth of large swaths of what makes up the greater social reality, including the incredible diversity of races and countless types and varieties of abilities. Hitler’s solution was to eliminate or enslave those who did not meet his racial preferences or did not possess what he judged as worthy abilities. Had he been truly focused on reducing or mitigating illnesses and debilitating conditions for society at large, the methods he used would have been very different, and he might have been celebrated as a champion of humanity. The distance between serious mental derangement and well-adjusted societal functioning is sometimes subtle, but the behaviors and impacts are light years apart.

It is interesting to consider how one’s circle of reality shifts or shrinks (circles B and C) from the greater reality. I previously suggested that our increasingly virtual social interactions are contributing factors. Indeed, most (if not all) perpetrators of recent mass shootings were social loners whose primary social interactions were online. I consider them examples of circle B where their reality was a small, artificial sampling of society. Like Hitler and his followers, it is easy to believe oneself superior and powerful inside a small circle because of the limited numbers and lack of diversity within it. Some area B folks justify horrific behaviors because they perceive those outside their circle as objects and less than people like themselves. Other area B folks passively withdraw because the larger world is beyond their ability to grasp. Dementia is an interesting case that may be an area B phenomenon, at least as it appears from those on the outside. Because we cannot know what another person actually experiences internally, however, we cannot know whether their worldview has shrunken to a small part of or shifted outside of area A. It is also possible their circle of reality has expanded well into area D, and they find little in area A worthy of their engagement.

Shifts in consciousness outside of the societal perceptions of reality have numerous causes. Chemical imbalances, genetics, and birth abnormalities are among them, as are stress, trauma, and aging. The use of consciousness-altering substances like drugs and alcohol can also result in a shift. The late spiritual teacher, Ram Dass, claimed that God came to the United States in the form of LSD, a psychotropic drug popular in the 1960s. Indeed, the descriptions of psychedelic drug experiences often sound like forays into area D, which are well beyond any reality most of us can perceive unaided.

The point of this extended consideration of mental illness as it relates to societal violence is that a person’s perception of reality relative to society’s collective perception determines how they will relate to and behave around others. The increasing instances of violence against powerless victims are indicative of individuals becoming isolated from realities different from their own, whether by choice or circumstance. In the words of Christianity’s namesake, Jesus the Christ, we are to love God, love others, and love our enemies, regardless of where their circle of reality exists relative to ours. Loving and caring for people, all people, must override our value judgements about them. Reaching out to society’s loners is a Christ-like key to reducing societal violence.

This is the 22nd in a series of Life Notes titled Guns, Mental Illness, and Jesus. The opinions expressed here are mine and not necessarily those of other individuals or organizations. To engage with me or to explore contemplative spiritual direction, contact me at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com.


[1] https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/what-is-mental-illness, accessed October 24, 2022.

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