Demystifying Mental Illness and Its Treatment
by Al Galves, PhD
I have this desire to demystify mental illness. Why is that? What makes me want to demystify mental illness? What makes me want to do it is my sense that over the past 20 or 30 years mental illness has taken on a mysterious quality. It seems to me that people believe mental illness just comes on people, comes out of the blue, as if it is something alien to the person, something visited upon them, an alien visitation.
What makes me believe this is the case? Here are three pieces of evidence:
The first is the case of Simon Biles. Biles won the Olympic gold medal in female gymnastics at the 2018 winter games. She was the best gymnast in the world. At the 2022 winter games she was a member of the United States Olympic team. She told her teammates that there was so much pressure on her that she was not going to be able to perform well and, therefore, was not going to perform. In the aftermath of that decision, the word went out that she was suffering from a mental illness and everyone seemed to accept that. But wait. Why add the idea or belief that this is a mental illness? What she did was perfectly understandable and “normal” without adding the trope of “mental illness” to it. She was under a lot of stress, so much that it was going to affect her ability to perform. What is the purpose of adding the idea of mental illness? Does it take away some of her agency? She couldn’t help it. She was under the influence of a mental illness. Does it absolve her of responsibility for her decision? When the idea of “mental illness” is added to it, it takes on the patina of something other than a reasonable decision by a woman who is under a lot of pressure and believes it will affect her ability to perform well.
The second piece of evidence is a series of interviews I did. This wasn’t a scientific sample. I sat in the back of a coffee shop and offered to interview patrons about mental illness. Some of the ten interviewees were friends. I asked them what they thought caused mental illness. All of them gave me some kind of physiological answer. It was a brain disorder, a chemical imbalance, a genetic anomaly. I then asked them what they thought had triggered the change in the brain, the chemistry, the genetics. They hadn’t been mentally ill and then they were. What had happened? They all said something happened to the person. But, I said, you just told me mental illness was caused by some physiological dynamic and now you’re telling me it is caused by something happening to the person. What is it? They were all non-plussed, taken aback, chastened. So I asked them all the third question. Do you think there is a difference between how a person is reacting to a life situation and to concerns she has about her life, on the one hand, and a diagnosable mental illness, on the other? They all said “Yes”.
The third piece of evidence is reports I have read about the confusion of college students when they begin to feel down, depressed, agitated, manic, anxious. When they begin to feel that way, they ask themselves: is this a response to my life situation, to what is going on in my life and my concerns about that or is this a mental illness? They think there is a difference between those two things.
This is evidence of confusion in the general public about the nature of mental illness. Is it a mysterious state of being that comes out of the blue, just happens to people and is caused by some kind of physiological dynamic? Or is it a “normal” and understandable reaction to a person’s life situation, to concerns the person has about his life and himself, to what has happened to him?
This is not just an academic question. How people understand the states of being, moods, emotions, thoughts, intentions and behaviors associated with diagnoses of mental illnesses is going to have a big impact on their lives. It is going to determine how they understand themselves, how they manage themselves, the kind of treatment they seek. And the kind of treatment they seek and receive is going to determine the degree to which they recover and go on to live healthy, productive and satisfying lives.
So there are two main ways in which we can understand the states of being, moods, thoughts, emotions and behaviors associated with diagnoses of mental illness. We can understand them as caused by physiological dynamics, i.e. chemical imbalances, genetic anomalies, brain disorders, as coming out of the blue with no discernable connection to our lives or experiences, an alien visitation upon a person. Or we can understand them as understandable and “normal” reactions to a person’s life experience, life situation and to concerns the person has about his or her life and self, i.e. as emotional distress, a life crisis, a difficult dilemma, a spiritual emergency, a manifestation of fear, terror and overwhelm.
What are the implications of those different ways of understanding mental illness? For starters, there is a problem with understanding mental illness as essentially physiological in nature. If you follow that belief out to its logical conclusion, you believe that human beings have no control over their thoughts, emotions, intentions, perceptions and behavior and, therefore, have no control over their lives. The logic goes like this:
Mental illnesses are caused by brain disorders, chemical imbalances and genetic anomalies.
Mental illnesses are states of being, moods, emotions, thoughts, intentions and behaviors.
Therefore, states of being, moods, emotions, thoughts, intentions and behaviors are caused by brain disorders, chemical imbalances and genetic anomalies.
Human beings don’t have control over their brain function, biochemistry or genetic dynamics.
Therefore, human beings have no control over their states of being, moods, thoughts, intentions, emotions and behaviors.
Since human beings use their thoughts, emotions, intentions and behaviors to lead their lives, they have no control over their lives.
That is a very cynical and disempowering belief. It takes away agency and leaves people at the mercy of forces over which they have no control. It absolves people of responsibility for their lives and makes it less likely they will seek help in learning how to manage themselves in healthier ways.
If, on the other hand, people believe that mental illnesses are how they are reacting to their life situations and to concerns they have about themselves and their lives, they believe they do have control over their lives and are responsible for their behavior and are more likely to seek help in becoming healthier.
Let me try to explain more about this idea that mental illnesses are how people are reacting to their life experience and life situation. In order to be mentally healthy, people have to be able to love the way they want to love, express themselves the way they want to express themselves and enjoy life the way they want to enjoy life. When they can’t do that, haven’t been able to do it for a long time and are afraid they’ll never be able to do it, when they suffer significant loss or feel extremely helpless and inadequate, they become agitated, manic, angry, panicked, obsessive, depressed, anxious and psychotic. They become mentally ill. There is nothing mysterious or alien about it. It makes sense that when people are afraid they will never be able to live the way they want to live, afraid they are fundamentally flawed, inadequate, not smart, personable, strategic, connected enough to make it in this life, they would become depressed, anxious, panicky, manic, obsessive, unable to sleep, dissociated, even psychotic. Of course, every human being is a unique individual so how a person reacts to her life situation and to concerns she has about herself and her life will be unique. But the following are some general ideas about how life experiences and concerns are associated with mental illnesses:
Depression happens when a person loses something very valuable or has deep concerns about her life. It doesn’t have to be the loss of a person. It can also be the loss of a sense of security, a feeling of adequacy, a sense of certainty, a relationship, financial security, a job. When a person has deep concerns about her life, depression can be helpful. It forces the person to stop doing what they are doing, stop focusing outside in the world and, rather, take some time to focus inside, to deal in a serious way with issues of life.
Social anxiety disorder happens when people don’t want to be around other people out of fear they will be rejected, put down, abused, misunderstood or fear about how they will react to any interaction. In the case of one of my patients, her social anxiety was caused by the fact that, since she had been mistreated by people all of her life, she wanted to hurt other people and knew that wouldn’t work out well.
Mania occurs when a person has had a lot of pressure put on him to be very successful, exalted, outstanding and is unable to do that. The manic episode gives the person the illusion of being very powerful, successful and exalted. They can do anything and everything. They are amazingly powerful, smart, capable. Or it may be a move out of the drudgery of everyday existence. The person is tired of having to make the decisions we all have to make every day. What am I going to do with my time, energy and money? The possibilities are endless. But I can only do one thing at a time. In a manic episode, the person believes he can do it all. He doesn’t have to make those difficult choices. For some people mania is an opportunity to get in touch with a divinity, with the divine nature of existence in which one doesn’t have to deal with the everyday world.
Panic disorder happens when a person is facing a difficult dilemma, a dilemma that doesn’t have a good solution. It may have a better solution but not a good one. It is such a difficult dilemma that the person doesn’t even want to be aware of it. But the body is aware of it. So the body gets revved up to deal with it and causes the symptoms of panic disorder. Here’s an example - a woman came to see me with her husband. She was suffering from panic attacks. I asked her if there was anything going on in her life that could account for them. She said “No.” We kept on talking. It turned out that her son was about to be involved in the invasion of Iraq. He was a foot soldier, would be engaged in mortal battle, at serious risk of being killed. When she said that she began to cry. She cried for a long time. I helped her to be aware of her fear, to be with it and give in to it. She never came back in.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder happens when a person overcontrols what he can control as a way of repressing the fear of knowing that the things which can really hurt him are out of his control. The obsessive behavior is a way of gaining the illusion of control. The excessive hand washing, ordering and checking may be a way of dealing with the uncomfortable truth that we don’t have any control over the things that we really need to be afraid of. We don’t, for example, have control over other drivers whose behavior may maim or kill us, over other kinds of accidents and disasters that are outside of our control, over the safety of an airplane flight when we are on one, even over dangerous illnesses such as heart attacks, strokes, cancer and diabetes. So the repetitive behavior gives him the illusion of having control over things so that he doesn’t have to experience the discomfort of realizing that he actually doesn’t.
As for the intrusive thoughts, perhaps they are useful in that they enable a person to avoid having to take responsibility for making decisions and addressing the difficult, real problems of everyday life – dealing with love relationships, jobs, co-workers, bosses, children, financial difficulties, moral dilemmas, competing priorities. Since we deal with these kinds of problems all the time, perhaps we lose sight of how difficult they can be. They often involve conflict with other people. They often require us to make decisions and choices that involve necessary losses and understandable regret. Carl Jung one time defined mental illness as “the avoidance of suffering.” Some human beings will go to great lengths to avoid dealing with the difficulties of the real world.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) happens when a person has an experience in which she thought she was going to die and was unable to fight back or escape. The symptoms associated with PTSD - recurrent and intrusive recollections of the event, efforts to avoid, activities, places or people which arouse recollections of the event, feelings of detachment or estrangement from others, hypervigilance - appear to be designed to help the person avoid the psychic and physical pain of the traumatic experience and to avoid a reoccurrence of trauma. They also appear to enable the person to relive the experience. It makes sense that people would want to relive traumatic experience. Typically, people who suffer trauma carry some (usually irrational) guilt about it, believing that they somehow contributed to it happening or that they could have done something about it. Reliving the experience holds out the possibility of resolving the guilt or imagining a different outcome, somehow making more sense out of the incident and coming to a more realistic appraisal of it.
Psychosis happens when a person who has been hurt badly – discounted, dishonored, rejected, made to feel inadequate, abused physically, verbally, emotionally – attaches his psychic energy to a deeper, more powerful but imaginary part of his psyche. That move which is initiated by a deeper, healthier part of the psyche than the rational part is a move towards survival, healing and recovery. In the words of John Weir Perry, a psychologist who spent a lot of time trying to understand the psyches of persons diagnosed with schizophrenia, “the psychotic process puts this power-oriented form of the self through a transformation that awakens the potential for relationship and gives it its rightful place in the structure of the personality and in the style of life.”
What evidence is there to support this idea that mental illnesses are how people are reacting to their lives and to concerns they have about their lives and themselves? Here is one piece of evidence. People who have certain characteristics are more likely to be diagnosed with certain mental illnesses than other people. So people who have the following characteristics are more likely or less likely to be diagnosed with depression than other people:
People who derive their sense of self-worth from social relationships and have experienced an interpersonal loss;
Women who use a ruminating style of thinking;
People who score low on self-esteem and high on stress;
Persons who score high on a Self-Defeating Personality Scale;
Persons who suffer from chronic pain;
Persons with more emotional strength and resiliency and a higher level of ego control are less likely to be depressed;
Persons who experienced poorer pre-morbid functioning – particularly adolescent social functioning.
The following are the characteristics of persons who are more likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder:
Difficulty in realistic goal-setting;
Low in persistence and conscientiousness, high in neuroticism and openness to experience on the Eysensenk Scale;
Low in self-complexity and, therefore, more susceptible to mood swings in response to live events – especially intensely dependent relationships which are disrupted;
Deficient in tasks requiring response inhibition, delayed gratification and sustained attention;
The ability to hold antithetical and contradictory ideas or concepts in their minds at the same time;
Tendency to deny the experience and necessity of loss;
Tendency to see things as either black or white, good or bad, not able to see the greyness of things, thus vulnerable to extreme swings of mood in response to minor triggers in the environment;
Has been betrayed by a significant parent figure and is compelled to force the parent to love him again;
Has lost the esteem of a loved person and denies it through regression to a state of not having to make the choices that are required in maturation.
The following are the characteristics of people who are more likely to be diagnosed with psychosis than other people:
People who have suffered physical or sexual abuse, especially in childhood;
People who have experienced 7 or more adverse childhood experiences, i.e. childhood physical abuse, childhood sexual abuse, childhood emotional neglect, parental loss, mental illness in household, substance abuse in household, , criminality in household.
This is evidence that the experiences people have had and the personality characteristics which have resulted from those experiences have a significant impact on their chances of being diagnosed with a mental illness. This is evidence that the states of being, moods, behaviors, thoughts, intentions and emotions associated with diagnoses of mental illness are not alien visitations. They are understandable and meaningful reactions to peoples’ life experiences, life situations and concerns they have about their lives, the world and themselves.
There is another reason why how people understand mental illness makes a difference. How they understand mental illness determines the kind of treatment they seek. If they think it is an alien visitation, something that came out of the blue, the result of a chemical imbalance, brain disorder or genetic anomaly, they are likely to seek treatment in the form of medication and less likely to seek treatment in the form of psychotherapy. If they think it has something to do with their life and concerns they have about their life and themselves, they are more likely to seek psychotherapy for treatment.
In my opinion, the benefit-risk ratio of treatment with psychotherapy is much better than the benefit-risk ratio of treatment with medication (Full Disclosure: I am a psychotherapist). Here is my assessment of those benefit-risk ratios:
Psychiatric medication may help you feel better, more alive or be less agitated and more grounded. (But one might ask if it is a good idea to feel good when you have lost something very valuable or your life is a mess). On the risk side, you are likely to experience numbing of emotions, sexual dysfunction, akathisia, increased risk of suicide and violence and, in the case of antipsychotics, tardive dyskinesia (Parkinson’s) brain shrinkage, cognitive impairment, increased risk of diabetes and early death. When and if you stop using the medication you are likely to relapse and/or have a difficult time withdrawing.
Effective psychotherapy will help you to learn about yourself and begin the lifelong task of developing a good relationship with yourself. It may help you learn how to use your thoughts, emotions, intentions, perceptions and behavior to live more the way you want to live and provide you with self-management skills and knowledge you can use for the rest of your life. On the risk side, you may go through some painful feelings, go down the wrong path for a while and waste some time and money.
On balance, it seems to me that the potential benefits of psychotherapy are so large that it becomes the much better option.
There is evidence that treatment with psychotherapy is more effective than treatment with medicine. In the case of depression patients treated with psychotherapy and medicine report similar levels of improvement but the ones treated with psychotherapy have a much lower relapse rate and their improvement is more long-lasting. In the case of people experiencing psychosis the evidence tells us that people who never take the medicine or stop taking it have a much higher rate of recovery than people who take the medicine and stay on it.
This battle between people who believe mental illnesses are essentially physiological and those who believe they are psychological has been going on for 250 years. Given the present state of scientific sophistication, we are not able to determine through scientific investigation which is the most scientifically valid way of understanding mental illness. Therefore, perhaps the best answer to this dilemma is one suggested by Bradley Lewis in his book Moving Beyond Prozac, DSM and the New Psychiatry: The Birth of Postpsychiatry. When faced with research findings for which there are various interpretations, Lewis says, we should choose the interpretation which is associated with the best outcomes for patients. We should take a practical approach in the good, old tradition of American pragmatism.
If we did that, we would clearly choose to understand the states of being, moods, thoughts, emotions, intentions and behaviors associated with the diagnoses of mental illnesses as reactions to life experiences and life circumstances and concerns that people have about their lives and themselves and we would treat them with various forms of psychotherapy.
Dr. Galves is a clinical psychologist in New Mexico and Colorado. He has worked as a psychotherapist in community mental health centers, in health clinics, and as a school psychologist in public schools. He is a board member of MindFreedom International and the author of Harness Your Dark Side: Mastering Jealousy, Rage, Frustration and Other Negative Emotions. Dr. Galves was the ISEPP Executive Director from 2011 to 2013.