Is Human Life a Mental Illness?

Many years ago when Naropa Institute was just getting going as a Buddhist center of higher learning out in Boulder Colorado, I went to hear Gregory Bateson, to my mind of of the great thinkers of the 20th Century, talk there. Amidst his eloquent goings on, he cautioned us young people that if we were ever going to have a psychotic episode, we should try not to do it while in America, lest we get swept into its so-called Mental Health system and never return. He taught, from an anthropological point of view, about the variety of ways different cultures had for dealing with freaked out people, and how such problems were often held and healed in traditional ways. To be honest, I don’t remember exactly what he said in any detail, but I remember being permanently struck by his admonishment to stay away from American concepts of Mental Illness, Mental Health, and Mental Health Care.

Thankfully, I never had reason to need this particular advice in terms of my own health, but I’ve been reminded of it lately as I see frequent headlines and articles about the epidemic of mental illness spreading across America. When I did have some weird symptoms in my mid twenties: choking feelings, numbness, dissociation from my hands…I was happy to be told that they were “anxiety”, which to me meant that I could just “deal” with them…which I did. There was no rush and no social climate to medicate in those days. I realized that I felt anxious when I walked into stores with certain kinds of florescent lighting. I followed the advice I got to keep my blood sugar steady and get out a terribly stressful relationship. I stopped eating dairy foods, to which I was, and still am, allergic. Having done all these things, within a very short time, all of my anxiety symptoms went away. I’ll never know exactly what was causing them or which change of habits made the biggest difference.

There is widespread debate and disagreement and an increasing sense of fear, outrage and even scandal about the number of people, including small children who are being diagnosed as mentally ill. Screening questionnaires which ask simple questions of children such as “Do you ever feel sad”, or “Do you sometimes not feel like going to school”? are reported to have landed children in a psychiatrist’s office, and from there, often, on to the pharmacy for some psychiatric medication. The child’s nutritional status, family life and school stress and work load are not the first things addressed.

In order to avoid some of the more serious side effects, cocktails of multiple medications are given to children and young adults in mixtures of small doses…..mixtures which no one has thoroughly studied in terms of their cumulative and long term effects on developing minds, brains and bodies.

Many years ago I read a “science fiction” novel called the “Futurological Congress” by Stanislaw Lem. It was about a future time when life was squalid and crowded, lived on a deprived edge of survival- level material surroundings. However, everyone took many and various pills everyday which gave them multiple desirable perceptions such as, that despite the squalor they lived in, they were surrounded by sumptuous luxury and beautiful decor, elegant trays of beautiful food and splendor. It was a daunting, zany, wild story. We may be trending ever closer to such a reality.

Today, biological research has shown that many body challenges can create changes of feeling and mood. Hormonal imbalance, infections like Lyme Disease, auto-immune reactions, malnutrition, traumatic experience, among others. Instead of rushing off to only medicate everyone, we should look at how to re-balance dis-eased bodies. That would call for major changes in how we are living. For instance, we’d have to be careful to avoid the hormone disrupting chemicals that are “everywhere” today in plastics, personal care products, pesticides and many other sources. We’d have to recognize that chronic stress itself is a hormone disrupter….or at least interacts with hormones in complex and detrimental ways. As it is, we’ve all, or at least many of us, been led over the cliff of medicating instead of living healthier lives and relating to life and life’s vicissitudes in a healthier way.

In Christianity there is a concept of “original sin”. I have always like comparing this to the Buddhist concept of “dukkha” or unsatisfactoriness, disquieted, uneasy….the inherent wrongness of conscious life. It’s really hard being a conscious being (that tree-of-knowledge event that got us kicked out of paradise), and it always has been. The Buddhist teaching explains how by accepting this and learning the true nature of reality and the suffering that comes from all attachments, we can live happily amidst life’s conditions. Throughout history, different cultures have found different ways of structuring and explaining life so that people feel comfortable and secure enough to abide, be comfortable and sometimes even happy in their human condition. These days, we are too often replacing the comfort and security of predictable family, spiritual, and social life with lots of drugs as a means to get people through the challenging task of being human in a time when even the basic biochemical building blocks of healthy brains and nervous systems are too often not supplied by the food, air, and water people take in.

I think we could be much better at supporting people in their struggle to take on life with all its ups and downs. We could support each other more in being realistic so that our unrealistic expectations and attachments don’t get us in so much existential and practical trouble. We could learn about places like the Freedom Center in Northampton, Massachusetts which offers yoga classes, acupuncture, nutritional support, and writing and other support groups for people diagnosed with serious mental illness who want to add and use non-pharmaceutical modalities to their program for working with their feelings, moods and behavior..

The Tibetans talk of “precious human existence” or being in a “precious human life”. With the proper orientation and a well nourished way of life, we could, I believe, really experience it that way.