In this article:
- Before the days of formal psychology, mental health problems were attributed to spiritual forces.
- These days, we think of mental health as something completely or mostly addressed at the individual level, meaning that it can be fixed with a pill, new patterns of thought, and a cathartic discussion.
- While ‘mental health awareness’ months may be a good place to start, a better, more far-reaching solution to the mental health crisis may be in your ballot box.
There’s not a lot left to say about psychology and mental health. Let’s be real here for a second and admit that it’s one of the most tired and done topics for articles on the web.
Everyone seems to have mental health advice up their sleeves — usually along the lines of how you can solve clinical depression through willpower, a good diet, and sleeping on time alone. If the topic is a little more in-depth, it might talk about mental health care access and how you can reduce the costs of going to therapy — usually with an insurance policy that you might not have.
These types of advice also make one critical assumption: That you have personal control over the root cause of your mental health issues.
In my brief time in counseling rooms, one reoccurring theme I’ve noticed, especially with young adults, was that the sources of their anxiety and depression were ultimately beyond their personal sphere of influence.
Mental Health Issues Used to Be Attributed to Spiritual Forces
Before the days of formal psychology, mental health problems were attributed to spiritual forces. What we would call depression today used to get labeled as demonic possession. Meanwhile, hallucinations were believed to be caused by divine influence — prophetic visions given by a deity to warn its followers.
Even neurodevelopmental disorders were explained through a folkloric lens. These days, we might recognize a child’s difficulty in responding to social interactions as a sign of a neurodevelopmental disorder, but medieval parents took it to mean that their child wasn’t human but a changeling.
Changelings are offspring of supernatural creatures swapped for human children. Some folkloric traditions claim that this is done to spirit the child away to the supernatural world. Others, like the Xana of Asturias, are said to do it so that they can trick a human into caring for their child, either because they can’t produce their own breastmilk or because they can’t get the child baptized (naturally, this is a post-Christian addition).
José R. Alonso, a Ph.D. in Neurobiology from the University of Salamanca, explains that these attributions of supernatural corruption to people with mental illness and neurodevelopmental disorders were used to justify cruelty towards them. The “logic” here is that since the child isn’t really human or the parents’ offspring, neglecting them, beating them, and abandoning them to die in the woods wasn’t really infanticide.
But the same human urge to explain psychological phenomena that drove the medieval prejudice against children with autism is the same one that led other cultures to believe that mental illness and neurodevelopmental disorders were divine gifts.
The ancient Greeks believed bipolar disorder’s manic phases were “divine states” where the conscious mind gives way to the inspiration of Apollo, a god of art. Amok of “running amok” fame is a violent psychotic episode. Yet Southeast Asian cultures believe it to be caused by possession or a curse.
We could go over a lot more cultures that have something similar in their folkloric traditions, but the common thread among them all is that they portray people with mental illness as not directly/solely responsible for their condition. There’s a greater force that is out of their control, yet can overpower them, that is to blame for the psychological problem at hand.
Enter the psychologist.
It’s 1879 in Leipzig, Germany. Wilhelm Wundt establishes the first experimental psychology lab, moving psychological disorders from the realm of the supernatural and divine to that of the scientific. It sets into motion a series of events that leads to the development of key ideas in psychology. What used to be demons were now unresolved problems within the unconscious mind that the person had to talk out with a therapist.
Fast forward a little further and you get to the truly modern psychologists such as Rogers and Beck, pioneers of two of the most influential approaches to therapy: client-centered therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy.
The latter introduced a revolutionary idea: You could think your way out of depression. Of course, this is a gross oversimplification of what CBT really does. It’s actually a structured treatment approach that helps clients change thought patterns that no longer serve them. Still, somewhere between this and now, the appeal of “thinking your way out” has encouraged a culture of positive thinking your way through mental illness. There seems to be nothing that “self-improvement” and simple commands of “go to therapy” can’t solve.
Adding fuel to the fire are self-help books that somehow manage to create shallow, and sometimes incompassionate, remixes of psychology and Stoic/Buddhist philosophy. Self-help books will show you cute little statistics about this or that psychological study that “proves” all you need to do is believe in yourself and “go to therapy”.
How Psychology Fails to Address the Root Causes of Mental Health Problems
To be clear, this isn’t to say that self-help, philosophy, and psychology cannot be powerful tools for healing people. But for those of us who’ve spent time talking to clients in the therapy room, it’s hard to ignore the ways in which psychology can’t help clients.
These days, it’s not demons that are blamed for psychological disturbance. It’s personal issues or a chemical imbalance. Whichever it is, the assumption is that it can be fixed with a pill, new patterns of thought, and a cathartic discussion. A lot of modern psychological treatment approaches, at the very least, act as if this is always the case.
And yet, no amount of therapy can help a 20-something client who is disillusioned with life because of bleak job prospects in a country that doesn’t favor people who start out with nothing. It’s a little harder to help a senior client when the primary source of their anxiety is becoming homeless, especially at a time when skyrocketing rent prices push thousands of senior adults into the streets.
That’s assuming that you can even find these people in the therapy room.
Aside from the prohibitive costs of receiving mental health care, there’s the matter of mental health issues being caused and aggravated by systemic problems. Poverty, for one, has been shown to be linked to depressive disorders and anxiety disorders.
Towards a Revolutionarily Empathetic Approach to Mental Health
Ultimately, mental health issues aren’t just the responsibility of the person experiencing them, no matter what modern perspectives on mental health have led us to believe. There are real systemic issues that prevent mental health care from being accessible and aggravate mental health conditions.
While ‘mental health awareness’ months may be a good place to start, a better, more far-reaching solution to the mental health crisis may be in your ballot box.