What is mental illness?

I’ve often struggled with the biological illness analogy — that says mental illness is (only) a biological thing, something medically wrong with the brain.

There is so much more to mind, and soul, and heart, than just the physical brain material.

In my own experience with depression, anxiety, and PPD, I know for sure that there is personal history, personality issues, very much mixed in with my experience, whether or not there is or was also some biological, physiological, neurological, hormonal element.

I have tried to be respectful of the biological analogy — what do I know about brain biology? And I don’t want to accuse any mentally ill person of having personal issues instead of a mere biological sickness. Especially when for so many people, medication seems to work.

Medication has certainly helped me — or so it seems.

I don’t know that I ever saw a clear effect from the Zoloft, but that may be because it was introduced to my system so very very gradually. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when I start tapering it off this month.

The Risperdal, on the other hand, I felt pretty sure that it was working the day after I first took it, and that was only 0.25 mg.

That’s also the one that scared me, though. Something used for schizophrenia, an anti-psychotic — when all I was dealing with was enough anger and irritability and confusion to scare me, and it doesn’t take much to scare me at all.

And why, if I already felt it working, did my psychiatrist double my dose?

I am so glad I’m not taking it anymore, even though I never experienced any bad side effects.

In my blog-reading and surfing, I find a lot of people (here’s the one who sparked this post) who have a lot to say against the medical establishment, particularly in the mental health field. About forced drugging, about abuses in institutions, about widespread and superficial “diagnoses” of children. About how difficult it is to get REAL therapy — long term, not an insurance-defined “sufficiency” of a handful of appointments. About how many therapists are abusing their power. And on and on and on.

It’s very scary.

I feel fortunate, blessed, that my experience has largely been quite positive.

My first therapist was absolutely excellent, and after trying some other folks out after moving, I’ll never bother again as long as Joe is still available by phone.

My hospitalization was more positive than negative. The psychiatric evaluator was fine the first time I showed up in the ER, and not too bad when I returned a few hours later, but as it became clear that I was going to insist on getting help, she became very cold and unsympathetic, disapproving. And they discharged me too soon and too abruptly. During my stay, though, most of the staff and the other patients were just fine to me. I was somewhat of a special case, coming in with PPD rather than a “real” mental illness, and being voluntary, I suppose; I was encouraged to participate in things but not forced. I was allowed to get what I really needed — rest and space.

My DBT group was awesome. The material suited me — it was focused and practical, but holistic and not shallow. And my fellow group attendees were wonderful people.

My first psychiatrist was okay. She messed up really bad once, but without the most terrible consequences I feared.

(I got angry enough at Amy that I got scared of myself. I called my doula to talk it out. She apparently talked about me, but not by name, to other doulas or something. Word got around to my psychiatrist, who recognized me by the description. She called me to ask if Mark could come to our next appointment, the next day. I immediately had a sinking feeling and asked why she wanted him there. She just said to catch him up. But when we got there, she explained the grapevine revelation, and started recommending all these extra interventions. I was shocked by her betrayal, and terrified that I might be committed or have Amy taken away. I couldn’t believe she was so dishonest in not answering my question on the phone, so that I could have at least been prepared.)

My current psychiatrist seems okay, although I’ve only met with her once.

Think, folks; wholesale skepticism isn’t necessarily the answer, but wholesale trust in authority isn’t either.


2 thoughts on “What is mental illness?

  1. As you say, what we call mental illness is very complicated, just as biological “illness” is. There are _so_ many things that can be the cause, and I’m not sure many doctors, even psychologists or psychiatrists really know what all they are.

    Your last comment, “wholesale skepticism isn’t necessarily the answer, but wholesale trust in authority isn’t either” is right on. In everything, neither extreme is the answer, but some of both skepticism and trust works well.

    Your skepticism about counselors is good. It is very, very hard to find a really good one that works for yourself.

    Yep – think.

  2. i agree with you last line, too. one has to keep open to the workings of life’s generosity, but it’s really, really important to question those who claim to want to help us in ways we don’t understand, find perplexing, or hurt us.

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