Sunday, January 16, 2011

What is Mental Illness?

Last week's shooting of a Congresswoman and the constituents who went to meet her in a public shopping center has created the first political football of the new year. Liberals / progressives claim that the climate of hate promoted and encouraged by rightwing radio personalities and demagogue politicians has a chilling effect on the minds of people who are dealing with mental health issues (such as paranoid schizophernia, bi-polar / manic-depression, and anti-social pathologies). The conservatives on the right claim that their words and rhetoric does not make people go on shooting rampages, because people are responsible for their own behaviours and these are the actions of one individual, who happened to mention on his Myspace page that one of the books that influenced him was The Communist Manifesto (ignoring that he also indicated many dystopian classics by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, as well as conservative favourite Ayn Rand and the ultimate rightwinger: Hitler's Mein Kampf).

So, what is mental illness? That is a question that has haunted me since I interned in Washington, D.C. in 2000. It seems incredible to reflect on now, but until my internship, I had no obvious contact with people who were mentally ill. Though I had an extreme rightwing fanatical roommate at BYU who said the most non-sensical stuff and was filled with hatred, it did not occur to me until I saw the brilliant film A Beautiful Mind in 2001 that the roommate was probably mentally ill. I knew that he was manic-depressive, but when I hear the term "mental illness", it is actually "paranoid schizophernia" that comes to my mind.

As the media scrambled to find out who this shooter is and what his motivations might be, there were reports that he had posted some of his writings on YouTube, so of course I had to check them out. I was actually stunned by the incoherence in his rantings. He made no sense at all and he seemed obsessed with the idea of language being a currency that everyone needs to take back from the government for control over their own lives. According to his mind, the government controls us through language, so we need to create a new language. The brilliant scholars who created Esperanto, supposedly the easiest language to learn, learned that its hard to invent a language that will catch on with people. Language began as spoken words before they were ever written down. Its far more difficult to expect people to adopt a universal language created by linguists (unless they happen to be Trekkies who speak Klingon at conventions).

The disturbing part of this guy's rant is that it follows the same cliched pattern of other paranoids. Why is government the object of these people's anger and fear? As an intern, part of my job was answering the phone. I always knew what Rush Limbaugh had talked about on his radio program that day because I'd get call after call by some angry ranter stating the same things. They had nothing better to do with their lives than to listen to some ignorant blowhard propaganda artist and then harass unpaid interns working in government? The government is always the source of their problems. Even more disturbing were the calls where the person claimed that the government was controlling or zapping their brains! Whenever I hear a person tell me such a thing in all seriousness, I get chills down my spine. To me, it is truly the creepiest thing anyone could probably say because its a dead-giveaway that they are mentally ill.

As I read about the this shooters beliefs, one person immediately came to mind. The anti-government guy who is a member of the same faith community as me, whom I had de-friended on Facebook last year after he violated a core principle of friendship. I was not the only person who immediately thought of this guy. At least one other person on Facebook had a similar thought. For the record, though, the anti-government extremist I know claims to be non-violent and refusing to act in a violent way to anyone. I believe him, even if I long suspected that he suffers from some sort of mental illness. Hearing his never-ending arguments, sticking to the same narrow points, year after year, there's no doubt that his brain doesn't properly work. There is no convincing him that our government is not "tyranny" (not even under the worst excesses of GWB's reign of errors), or that his life is better than perhaps 95% of the world's population. It all boils down to government being a criminal organization because they take away part of his money in taxes.

He refuses to answer my questions because the logic does not fit his warped worldview. Those questions are: As one who has lived in the U.S. all your life, have you used a public library, driven on paved roads, utilized the post office, attend public schools, had police and fire protection? Of course he doesn't want to admit that he has personally benefitted from all of that! Because he is a "sovereign citizen" (and went so far as to create his own homemade driver's license / identity card like those anti-government extremists in Northern Idaho and Western Montana). The second question I always ask him is: Name one country in the world where there is no government that is held as the ideal society where people want to live. He refuses to answer that question because he knows there is no such country. Somalia has not had a functioning government for most of the past twenty years, and its not exactly a popular tourist, expatriot, and immigrant destination.

I don't know very much about mental illness or even how the brain works. I don't know what causes mental illness or if drugs help restore the balance without turning the person into a zombie. I have my own theory about mental illness, which might not be correct. Basically, I see it as a symptom or outcome of an ego out of control. In my spiritual view, I believe in reincarnation and evolution, with the point of life to be moving from a selfish existence towards a selfless existence. The ego comes with the body and exists to ensure that humans aren't a pushover. We are meant to learn how to balance the demands and obsessions of the ego with our higher self or soul. When one allows their ego to run amuck, it creates havoc in the individual, their familes, and society at large.

What I notice among those mentally ill people I've come across, they all have a strong ego. The things in their mind is the absolute truth and there's no convincing them at all that they might be wrong. They aren't able to relate to others very well because they can't get past the power of their own egoes. The paranoia stems from an ego out of control. Someone is out to get them or harm them. An outside force is able to control them through radiowaves or a remote control device. In one example some friends of mine shared with me about a schizophernic person that they knew, that person claimed that some raccoons had broken into her house to steal her medicine and pens! They couldn't convince her of the absurdity of that belief and she really believed that! Raccoons!!!

The mind is truly a fascinating organ. Sometimes I wonder if schizophernia is caused by people who have used drugs a little bit too much. Since childhood, I've always had a strong aversion to drugs (I was like Gizmo surrounded by Gremlins who indulged in it and wanted me to join them). I have never tried any, beyond laughing gas and Valium. Though I can see why people might be addicted to that, I've always been able to achieve a blissful state through listening to music. I did not need to take drugs to experience a high. And when you add chemicals to your brain's elaborate chemical structure, you are messing with a complex system and you really don't know how your brain will react.

It disturbs me that there are many people in Oregon who are advocates for marijuana legalization or even active users, with or without a medicinal marijuana card. Through regular use, are they only contributing to the likelihood that they might become mentally ill in the future? Based on what I learned in health class and from those who have used it, marijuana apparently makes a person paranoid. Its the mind's over-reaction to having a heightened state of alertness. Who wants that side effect consequence of using drugs?!?

My lack of understanding about a person's mental illness did lead to a somewhat funny episode in college. Part of my part-time evening job was to lock five buildings at night. When I was assigned a new partner, the lady had told me that she was a manic-depressive AND an obsessive-compulsive! (What a combination!). She had trouble remembering which doors to lock and after this had gone on longer than it should have, I had joked to her: "If you don't remember to lock all the doors, Satan is going to get you!" I should be careful joking like that, because she really did believe Satan was real while I was trying to be funny in my usual morbid way. After the night I made that joke, I never saw her again. I was back to locking the doors myself until a replacement was assigned. I was stunned. Was my joke that bad? I had asked around and one young lady was incredulous. She said, "I can't believe that you would joke about Satan to a woman who was manic-depressive and obsessive-compulsive!!!"

"It was really that bad?" I asked.


I seriously need to learn not to joke around certain kinds of people! For me, it just seems unreal that there are people who are not rational or moderate or able to test the logic in a belief or idea. Instead, they rail against the invisble rays of a remote control operated by some government entity to control their every move and restrict their freedom. I can attest that in my nearly 40 years of living, the government has little control over my life. Sure, I pay taxes, but when I look at what I've been able to do, there is true freedom in my life and the choices I've been able to make. It saddens me that there is such a thing as mental illness and that untold numbers of people suffer from some form of it. Though it might sound bad for me to say, I really hope that the root cause of mental illness is because of drug usage or an out of control ego and not anything like genetics or something we can't control to some degree. Having a sharp mind is important.

The film A Beautiful Mind helped me understand a little bit about mental illness through the perspective of the university professor (played by Russell Crowe). The twist in the film is brilliant. When someone believes that the thoughts in their minds are real, even though everyone else around them swears that it is not, that's pretty scary. How does one know reality? I think its a consistency of the information. For example, the church member who is anti-government was the only person on my Facebook friends list who alienated everyone else on my list who had the misfortune of being drawn into a debate with him. Several had emailed me privately to ask what his problem was, mentioning his incoherent arguments. This church member also has the repetitive habit of being banned from various webboards operated by the church or church members. You would think that the message would break through his ego at some point. If everyone has the same reaction to him, wouldn't he finally get the hint?

How does society solve a problem like mental illness? We live in a country that does not want to deal with this issue. President Reagan was known for closing mental hospitals, which meant that all those mental health patients in psych wards were turned out on the streets, where the world was really scary. So many homeless people do have some mental health issues. Yet conservatives don't want to do anything about it. They believe that private charities will take care of them. I'm all in favour of government funded programs to keep mentally ill people off the streets and in institutions to be monitored. Whatever the cost to maintain this system is worth the price, in order to keep them from accessing guns and harming themselves or others.

I'd also like to see a more spiritual approach to mental health counseling. Instead of freaking out and calling a person crazy because he or she claims to "hear voices." If someone told me that, I would ask them what the voices are telling them to do, and if its not a good thing, I would share my theory that those voices might actually be earth-bound spirits looking for weak-minded humans to commit their evil bloodlust deeds. As I'd tell a schizophernic: "Just because some voice is telling you to do something doesn't mean that you have to do it! You have the power of free will." But, its easy for me to say, because I don't have those kinds of experiences, so I really don't know how real those voices or images appear to someone who is mentally ill.

The lady I had met last week whom I find intriguing has just landed a job, which should be starting in a week or two. She'll be working in the psyche ward of a state hospital. We had joked about techniques she should learn to protect herself and a few of us thought of Nurse Ratched and the film One Flew Over the Coo-Coo's Nest. As I was looking through a playbook of the Armory Theater in Portland, I noticed that one of the plays coming up is One Flew Over the Coo-Coo's Nest. Talk about serendepity! I may have to see about inviting her to see this play with me. I should probably read the novel first. Its been at least a decade since I've seen that film. I wonder if that would be an awkward first date. However, I think its just cool that this lady I had met a week ago is starting an interesting job, dealing with mental health patients. One of the things she had shared that set off bells in my mind (indicating a major point in common) was that she had mentioned not liking to be in crowds for very long and how she has to withdraw and do things by herself. She's a lot like me in that regard, but I bet she would probably agree that sometimes, its even more fun to do things with another person.


Brian Barker said...

May I correct you ?

Esperanto was not invented by scholars. The original outline was made by a Polish linguist called Zamenhof and it has now become a living language.

The study course is now receiving 120,000 hits per month. That can't be bad :)

Julie said...

there are different kinds of mental illness...