Being Mentally Healthy – 8. Mental Illness & Mental Health

This lesson is on mental illness and mental health. As American author John Bradshaw observed, “our inner state creates the outer and not vice versa.”

Mental illness is chronic distorted perception. Mentally ill people misconstrue what is happening. The mind imparts significance which is not part of the situation.

Modern psychologists assign 3 major categories to mental illness: anxiety, mood, and schizotypy.

Anxiety is an intense feeling of fearful distress. An anxiety may be a generalized sense of tension or panic, or be limited to a situation, object, or activity. Hesitation may be a mentally healthy response. Anxiety is not.

A specific anxiety is a phobia, which is a fear of a certain object or situation. Phobias arise from fantasies which are believed.

Feeling unease when at a height where a fall may be fatal is a natural self-preservation. Feeling distressed at the mere thought of being at such a height is a phobia.

An obsession is a persistent mental construct which may incite stress. A compulsion is a repetitive, ritualized behavior performed to reduce anxiety.

An obsessive-compulsive disorder is an obsession coupled to a compulsion. Frequent, physically uncalled-for hand washing is exemplary. Hand washing is a distraction emblematic of the desire to cleanse oneself of a mental state.

Mood disorders involve dramatic swings in mood. Depression is commonly involved. Some mood disorders involve mania, which is inner hyperactivity.

Someone suffering bipolar disorder swings from a jaunty manic state into a debilitating depression. Like the ups and downs of roller coasters, these states episodically alternate.

Schizotypy involves malformed mind perception: either under-perceiving or over-perceiving mental activity in others.

Theory of mind is the perception that others have minds which are distinct from one’s own. Theory of mind naturally develops in healthy children around the age of 4 to 5 years.

While autistics are sensitive to others’ emotional discomfort, they have difficulty representing other people’s mental states. Autistics’ theory of mind faculty is deficient.

Psychopathy is another mental illness of insufficient mind perception. Psychopathy stems from lacking reflexive empathy, which hinders social learning. American psychologist Karl Gray: “Psychopathy is characterized by callous affect and interpersonal insensitivity.”

Though psychopathy has been known for millennia, and is fairly common, modern psychologists have been unable to concur on its definition.

Empathy and compassion are aspects of healthy mentalizing. Psychopaths do not naturally feel empathy or compassion, and so are bereft of reflexive altruism. Failing to appreciate that others have sensitive minds makes it easy to manipulate people without moral consideration.

Psychopathy is commonly an inherited disorder, though it may develop in abused children who might not have been psychopathic had they a decent child-rearing. Children who cannot freely express themselves emotively learn to repress themselves as self-protection. The habit of self-repression retards social learning and forecloses healthy caring relationships.

Despite the handicap, psychopaths who are not sociopaths may learn and practice appropriate social behaviors. Such behaviors just do not come naturally. Owing to their emotional disability, psychopaths have diminished capability for intimacy, though they may render a decent imitation of it.

Sociopathy is antisocial psychopathy. A sociopath manipulatively exploits others without moral reflection or remorse. Someone may be a psychopath but not a sociopath. Former US president Donald Trump exhibited classic symptoms of sociopathy. With intrinsic approval of profit-taking without moral regard, capitalist societies inherently cultivate sociopathy.

American psychologist Martha Stout: “About 1 in 25 individuals are sociopathic, meaning, essentially, that they do not have a conscience. The high incidence of sociopathy in human society has a profound impact on the rest of us.”

Schizotypy typically involves promiscuous mentalizing: perceiving nonexistent minds. Schizotypy is a continuum of mental illnesses characterized by imaginative mental states – accepting the fantasies of the monkey-mind as real. Schizophrenia is an extreme schizotypal disease.

Freud distinguished between neurosis and psychosis by ascribing the degree to which perception is divorced from actuality.

In neurosis, the break is with that portion of actuality found intolerable. Overall apperception remains more or less intact. The impairment only affects a limited realm of mental functioning.

In contrast, Freud thought that psychotics found actuality too painful to bear: the break is global. Actuality is largely replaced with a paracosm: an imagined world.

The mental illness of the Collective of humanity is illustrated by the commonness of distorted mind perception. Sexual violence is predicated upon misattributed mentalizing: either projecting that a woman would enjoy an assault, or not thinking or caring that a physical attack would also be a psychological one, with scars lasting long after the event. The social callousness of exploitative capitalists, and political conservatives lacking compassion, owes to deficient mind perception. They just don’t care about others.

The foregoing are merely egregious examples of the ubiquity of asymmetric mentalizing: such as, that we know others better than they know us, and that others are biased whereas we see things as they really are.

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Though mental illness has long raised controversy in diagnoses and causes, there has been a remarkable consensus throughout history about mental health. American psychologists Shelley Taylor & Jonathon Brown: “Throughout the history of psychology, the dominant position has been that the psychologically healthy person is one who maintains close contact with reality.” Austrian British social psychologist Marie Johoda adds, “The perception of reality is called mentally healthy when what the individual sees corresponds to what is actually there.” Further, observed Abraham Maslow, “The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.”

In later lessons we’ll delve deeper into mental heath and why it is so difficult to attain. Next, we turn our attention to how the mentally ill have been treated through history.