The myth of mental illness

As a culture, we think something is "wrong" with us when we are not able to sustain happiness. In our ignorance, we are missing the true meaning of unhappiness: It is a signal calling us to learn something deeper about ourselves.

Imagine that Sigmund Freud had been a professor. People clearly felt comfortable talking to him. Students would have come in and shared their private angst. "Professor, every time I have to give a speech, I have to pee a thousand times." or "Every time I take an exam, I feel like I'm going to throw up!" Being the compassionate and curious man he must have been, he most likely would have started offering classes on human emotions.

Because of the vocational choice of one man, what might have been a course of study in self-awareness now falls under the umbrella of "health." Rather than look to our emotional ignorance with curiosity and eagerness to learn, we call ourselves "mentally ill." And we are all left feeling self-conscious, embarrassed and damaged, because something is "wrong" with us.

While IQ — the measure of cognitive ability — receives lots of attention, EQ — emotional intelligence, the innate ability to feel, recognize, understand, communicate, learn from, and manage emotions — receives very little. Our culture, having focused for thousands of years on the tasks of survival, has excelled in left brain development and external control and has simply not realized that we need to be educated about our internal world if we are to achieve true balance and well-being. It is in the post-Freudian era that we have given attention to the emotional distress that signals our need to develop awareness of our own selves. But, in the technologically focused, survival-based mode we instinctively operate within, reinforced by behaviorism, which dominated psychology after World War II, we approach this distress with an unconscious cultural bias. We seek to eliminate and to manage it, as though it were dysfunctional, rather than to understand the "rightness" to which it alerts us.

With the possible exceptions of people who struggle with schizophrenia or psychosis — for which there is no definitive understanding of the cause — what if there is no "mental illness?" What if we are all suffering, to various degrees, from the lack of "emotional education" — from plain old ignorance? What if each "dysfunction" is the emotional equivalent of an old person walking, bent double, having tried to adapt to the pain with no knowledge of how to handle it, gradually over the years becoming increasingly more physically distorted? What if what we call "mental illness" is just the result of years of adapting in our ignorance, trying to avoid feelings that are overwhelming because we have not been educated and equipped to know how to handle them, and we have become increasingly distorted in our ability to be the people we want to be?

This is our power: to look for the rightness in what we are experiencing, rather than, in shame, to accuse ourselves of being dysfunctional or of just "not wanting to be happy." What if the depth of learning available to each of us is endless, and as we embrace this challenge, the peace and freedom we can attain is beyond our imagination?

Jan Harrell is a psychologist and co-author of "Love Again — Creating Relationships Without Blame," and "Personal Strength — Spiritual Joy: Bridging Heaven and Earth,"

The Ashland Daily Tidings invites residents of the Rogue Valley to submit articles on inner peace: where do we find it, what particular path worked and how has it been helpful. All the various aspects of inner peace; intuition; guidance; courage; fearlessness; forgiveness; giving and receiving; joy; tolerance; acts of kindness; gratitude; life's challenges of grief, pain, addictions and more, are welcome. Send articles 600 to 700 words to Sally McKirgan To see all articles on inner peace: search on inner peace.

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