I have for some time, and mostly on the back-burner, tried to understand the 1960s-70s conversation about the social context of mental illness in light of contemporary experience. The basic tension being whether the determinant role in mental illness can be fixed primarily on biological factors or social factors. High school was my first encounter with mental illness when a good friend was diagnosed with depression. I can still remember him talking about ‘chemical imbalances’ and as I recall this was also presented to us in a class. The basic point of focusing on biology was so that individuals would not equate their experience with their identity or ability. They could no more ‘create’ or ‘identify’ with their condition as could someone with a cold or flu. This sort of conversation also placed hope in science as the messianic figure for those in bondage.
I find it unfortunate that the conversation continues to be reduced to the need for a bio-medical cure and that other forms of response are basically the bandage which keeps the individual from completely being bled out. Now I want to be clear that I am not opposed to medications that respond to mental illness (though I remain supremely frustrated in how they get distributed and the ‘results’ they offer). What I want to consider is simple. Regardless of an illness’ origin and manifestation how would a person respond to their symptoms (apathy, melancholy, hallucinations, paranoia, etc.) if they lived in an environment that actively and rigorously rooted out expressions of fear or the factors which most commonly lead people to be afraid.
I don’t really care at the moment about whether or not this possible. I just want to consider what it would be like for someone to experience symptoms of mental illness (assuming they are somehow of independent origin) without being afraid of them. What if there was no fear of hearing voices only a need to process what they said. What if there was no fear of apathy but a space to rest and act without the spectre of productivity. These ‘services’ are already offered but they stand distinctly under the banner of ‘sick’ (dysfunctional, abnormal, absurd, etc.). There is a lot of talk about dealing with the ‘stigma’ of mental illness but until we consider that the power to make it an ‘illness’ is held directly within the stigma I don’t see it being taken seriously. The typical response of dismantling stigma is to handle a person with ‘kid-gloves’ that still perpetuates diminished status. How then can we nourish lives that can withstand the fearful realities of life or must we ‘flee Babylon’ and created spaces (perhaps like L’Arche or La Borde) where another manner of life is possible? And what of the church in all this? I don’t see those addressing a mental illness flocking to my congregation. And yet there are so many individuals and families struggling under this burden.