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The Construction of ‘Madness’ as ‘Illness’ – A Response to Clinical Depression is Bullshit

This piece has been written by Anonymous.

Anonymous’ recent article reminded me of an old conflict that haunted me for quite a long time. Like Anonymous, I, too, have had the lingering feeling that something is wrong with me, that I have an inherent problem that impedes my ability to interact with other people. I may not be a hypochondriac – though I confess I do often take medication at the slightest provocation if I have a deadline looming – but, in spite of the stern warnings of my Psychology professor, I ended up looking for myself in the pages of my textbook. (It didn’t help, of course, that all the tests we administered on ourselves during practicals diagnosed me as “highly neurotic”.)

I wrote about this last year on my personal blog and I have reproduced the same [with modifications and annotations] in the hope that it gives a slightly different perspective on the issue.

An Aside on Anxiety

I may have anxiety, I think to myself multiple times a day, but especially when I am faced with a crowd of people and I have to speak. Or in the quieter moments, when an intimate conversation ends abruptly, and I wonder what kind of impression I made on the person. I think this to myself as I involuntarily wring my hands in an attempt to soothe myself.

And then I remember my brief fling with psychology in school, where the cardinal rule I was taught was to exercise caution in self-diagnosis: our ailments are a checklist, and it is one which it is easy to tick items off. I have been through no trauma to trigger this, I think on some days, and on others, I attributed it to [deleted].  I want help, a hug, some “self-care“, but I then recall this article, [1] which laughs at us for being weak wusses, and  suggests we are but children in search of coddling. Everyday Feminism, of course, has a response that is readily available on my newsfeed: you wouldn’t hesitate to accommodate someone with a physical illness, so why should it be any different if your symptoms are invisible?

Foucault [2] then comes to mind, reminding me that madness as an illness is a relatively recent construct, and I find aspie [3] support groups online who unwittingly echo him in their assertion that theirs is just a different way of processing emotions and thoughts. But then the lawyers jump in, pathologizing  yet again, and I suddenly decide that I am perfectly sane.

In my quieter moments, I am aware that the truth, as always, lies somewhere in between – that perhaps we are too quick to de-normalize unorthodox ways of thinking, but some people do genuinely have more difficulty than the rest in adapting to society. And because of our constructs of mental disability as illness, as criminality, as a society we are reluctant to accept that the pool of different-thinking people could be much wider than those whom we believed. Capitalism also has a role to play, of course, wreaking havoc on our persons in yet another  way – through our minds and emotions this time. It is natural for us to be insecure and anxious when our world is crumbling and our worth is precarious – I even believe a lot of social anxiety could possibly be a result of the immense pressure capitalism places on selling yourself, even in matters as intimate as friendship. [4] (Though of course, it is a hunch I cannot really substantiate.)

In the end, however, with counseling failing me, and without access to therapy, all I have is myself, and my view of my issues. And – speaking for myself alone – it has helped me immensely to view anxiety as something transient and circumstantial, so that I am not crippled by a feeling of helplessness in dealing with it, while recognizing that this is hardly universal.

*****

Notes

[*] Please forgive me the unintentional alliteration in my title.

[1] Interestingly, none of this literature is specific to India. We know more about American social phenomena than we do about our own.

[2] M. Foucalt, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1964).

[3] Term used by self-advocates with Asperger’s Syndrome to describe themselves.

[4] But here is an article that provides some of the limitations in the sample study used in the previous link. So … I dunno.

A year hence, I do think I am leaning more and more towards capitalism and the collective loss of community as an explanation for wreaking havoc on our relationships, but I still tend to believe that ‘madness’ as a concept is societally constructed. Foucault is especially helpful to understand how particular to the modern era is the construction of madness as a disease – which is premised on the flawed and non-existent idea of an ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’ human. Of course, this must be separated from the disabilities incurred by ‘deviancy of thought’ – those should not ever be ignored and people undergoing such disabilities should be provided every support that they require. This is also not to completely denounce medication, nor does it denounce the impact of trauma on the human mind. It’s the difference between blindly diagnosing (or self-diagnosing) with depression, or making the required and applicable diagnosis with regard to the social circumstances.

For those of you who are shaking their heads and pointing out that mental illnesses often involve a change in your brain chemistry, I’d like to draw your attention to the diathesis-stress model, and the resultant conclusion that the environment has a huge role to play in our symptoms. And I would like to distinguish disorders from neurodiversity, or different ways of thinking and learning that are simply not in line with the ‘right’ way. (As well as the problems associated with this idea. Every idea has problems.)

The solution, I believe, is a mixture of empathy (towards the affected person) and critical thinking (towards the construction of madness in general), and to build a more loving, more just, more empathetic society – but what is the chance of that happening in the brutal gossip mill that is NLS?

Published in Smorgasbord

One Comment

  1. Irreverent Irreverent

    Hey! I believe you misspelled “Foucault” while adding tags. :p

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