Does medicine create mental illness?

I came across an article in the New York Times by T.M Lurhman, The Anxious Americans pointing out that America has become the most anxious country in the world. Spending vast amounts of money on anxiety medications.

The real question is why.

To be sure there’s a genetic vulnerability to anxiety, but that only governs the potential for anxiety, not anxiety itself.

The rest is based on the nurture side of the equation. The environment in which we live, including our social and cultural environment.

A significant part of our culture comes from science and the knowledge it creates. I wonder that perhaps the way we try to understand reality through science contributes towards the creation of mental illness.

Below I share some fears I have that our attitude towards the mind may be what’s contributing towards our suffering.

Obsessively obsessed about our obsessions

How we view the mind has changed over the centuries. Since the enlightenment period it’s become an object to study. Our attitude has been not only to analyze it, but judge its contents, categorise its functions and provide treatment for its problems.

Yet is that a reasonable attitude to take?

We seem to have become obsessed about the contents of our minds. Seeing the mind like a car that needs constant fine tuning.

Getting anxious about anxiety, afraid of fear. So it starts to feed on itself, growing and building to such an extent that it becomes a mental disease.

This is is a problem of neuroticism. Those who tend to suffer from anxiety, fear and depression. Further still, it seems to have become a cultural mindset, as the article above suggests.

There is now a self-help, personal development industry worth millions that tell us how to govern our minds in order to thrive, get the job, the new relationship and more. It reflects the the obsession we now have about managing the storm inside.

One can’t deny the importance of mental health as part of our well-being. But have we gone too far in our efforts to clean up our minds?

Science and psychology may have given us the impression that we can, and should do this.

But is that a reasonable claim?

Or is it a falsehood because we will never be free of fear and anxiety.

Science has perhaps given us the impression that we can not only understand the mind but that we can fix it. Free ourselves from the negative emotions we experience everyday.

Too much respect?

We hold science I’m such awe that we often seem to accept its judgments without question.

A friend of mine was once diagnosed with ‘non-specific personality disorder’. Which basically means, “there’s something wrong with you and we haven’t a clue what it is.” I say that there is no such disorder.

We can get labelled by the medical system. But once that takes place it’s hard to remove that perception from others people’s minds, and worst of all ourselves. We take on board the diagnosis to such an extent that it becomes part of our identity.

As with the case above, medical diagnosis can make us feel flawed and worthless.

It’s no longer that I have depression or anxiety. Now I am a depressive or anxious person. The implications are that we are flawed, weak, and worthless.

The illness, the diagnosis becomes a source of distress itself.

We seem to forget that science is not a perfect system. Perhaps we give it far too much respect when it comes to giving us the truth.

Knowledge is not neutral

We think in the west that science creates objective impartial knowledge of the world, yet closer inspection shows just how flawed that idea is.

In a paper by titled The weirdest people in the world. (Reviewed here, and a longer review here) Researchers argued that psychological research is almost all conducted in westernized cultures (America, Canada, great Britain, Australia), and on college students. This demographic is neither representative nor an average of the world’s population, but an extreme sample.

In other words, our understanding of the mind has come from a narrow, selected and unusual focus group.

Furthermore the manual of the mind the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) is highly contentious among academics and practitioners. Even they can’t agree on what a mental illness is, who has them, or how to treat them.

The reason is that mental illness like anything else is also a concept, not just a phenomenon. Concepts like mental illness categories come with them a set of tacit assumptions and implied values all bound up in a paradigm. It’s here I feel that science is doing us a disservice.

The DSM outlines and reflects the values the west feels are important. Rapid diagnosis by a health-care by a professional followed by medication to address any problem. Its diagnostic brackets are definitions based upon western ideas about the mind.

Our cultural background doesn’t just tell us how to investigate, but what to investigate and what to aim for.

It tries to lay down rules about what is normal and abnormal. Yet reality is blurred, more nuanced. So where do you draw the line between health and disease? Is there such a line objectively written. Or, as I think, we are drawing and redrawing that line ourselves?

Some feel that normal behavior had been medicalised to the point where people are being diagnosed with illnesses that don’t have. False positives.

Christopher Lane in his book Shyness, which is about Social Anxiety Disorder is one such example. Arguing that the medical system has pushed too far into a normal anxiety response in people and medicalised it to turn a profit.

Paradigms, ideas then are a double edged sword.

They can help us understand the world in greater depth, but they also restrict our understanding as well, by making it harder to see and accept alternative viewpoints. Because we become far to invested in one paradigm and don’t bother to question it.

Who is to say alternative ideas are outdated or false. By what measure do you assess the truthfulness of concepts about the mind, diagnosis, treatment?

It all adds up to doubts about science and the worry that it may be the cause of suffering as well as a much-lauded solution.

A spreading obsession

The troubling thing is the western attitude towards the mind is spreading. With the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) being used as the basis for understanding mental illness in many parts of the globe.

This trend is worrying because the flaws of the scientific medical paradigm will be much harder to spot and address if the vast majority of the power and influence is concentrated in one worldview.

To sum up the problem might be that ideas we have about the mind and mental health may be contributing to the problems we face.

For example the idea that we should address mental illness through treatment. But other possibilities that might work better such as community, mentoring, group work and outreach programmes are ignored and underfunded. Trying to medicate away mental illness is never going to work if the causes are elsewhere. From fractured communities, a polluted environment, unhealthy lifestyles, to poverty, inequality, and weak political leadership.

The solution to the mental health crisis I feel lies outside the medical paradigm.

For my part, I don’t want to be managing my mind all the time. What are your opinions and experiences within the mental health system? Do you feel flawed because if a diagnosis?

Write your comments below.

6 thoughts on “Does medicine create mental illness?”

  1. I think the modern epidemic of mental health issues is fuelled by the stresses of modern society which is based on the corrupting nature of money and perceived status which is prevalent in the UK and US. If you look at the happiest countries, Denmark, Scandinavia etc they don’t define themselves by status or their jobs as much as we do. Less judgemental maybe, physically healthier lifestyles also helps. Also the drug companies and capitalism drive poor mental health, they don’t want us to be healthy as that’s not good business. The masses are brainwashed by advertising making us seek material wealth and worthless trinkets that do not enrich our lives, rather it puts us in servitude for the next item of desire, the next mobile phone, the next TV etc. All pointless pursuits for happiness which cannot be gained by material things, happiness is being at peace with oneself and enjoying the company of others, all of which is free. The old adage ‘the best things in life are free’ is still true, and God willing it always will be. As to whether drugs cause mental health problems, I think they can and do, they can also cause all manner of physical problems too, although there are also a large number of drugs that help us, antibiotics etc, without which many of us would not be alive today. As with all things, there are good and bad things with everything, it’s just up to us to avoid the bad things and enjoy the good things in life, but sometimes that’s easier said than done.

    • Phew. There’s a lot of good stuff there, like me you have thought about this a lot. Not sure I can improve upon what you said, but thanks for commenting. I many ways society itself has become the problem, something I want want to write about more.
      As for science, by giving us a greater understanding of the world and our minds science has given us the illusion of control.
      Combine this with the ethical stance that we should be in control and we have a real problem with mental health and well-being. (To say nothing of the world at large.)
      Mental illness is the manifestation of our desire for control, and the harsh truth that we don’t have it.

  2. Illusion of control, I like it, and yes I think your spot on with that. We like to think we control everything around us, but in fact we control nothing, the only thing we can control is our response to outside stimuli. I think mental illness is excerbated by our desire for control, but the control itself (from what I’ve read) comes from our reaction to perceived or real threats from past expereinces, i.e. trauma. Many things can be traumatic for a child and we keep these memories locked in us as reactive behaviour throughout our lives. To break the chain of reaction, we need to respond and detach ourselves from projecting our fears onto others, to feel instead of thinking, to respond instead of reacting. To live in the now and not in the past or the future, as we can neither change the past nor predict the future, although there is one thing that lives in both, and that thing is fear.

    • Too true Rob. Control, or our lack of it is the truth we are blinded too. The only thing we can influence with any real is our own mind. As for past trauma, I wonder if it includes childbirth. My therapist thinks so. My mother was unconscious when I was born I had to be pulled out with calipers. Perhaps I relive those moments in some way when I’m anxious, isolated.
      Living is the Now is right, our body is the best place to start, our digestive system cares nothing for the future. Our hormonal system knows nothing of the past. That’s why mindfulness, meditation can be of massive help to people.
      Facing fear is the most important thing we can do, coming out of our comfort zone.

  3. That’s interesting about the childbirth trauma, Richard. Although I think all childbrith is traumatic for children so its probably best not to assume it’s that that causes your anxiety, although obviously dont count it out either. Also, great points about our body not recgonising the past or future, it is just in the now as it always is. And yes, facing fear is the most important thing, you’re right, say goodbye to the comfort zone so everything becomes less daunting, it’s the only way to go.


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