Watched the first two episodes of PBS’s Mysteries of Mental Illness last night; the third and fourth are tonight. Had a few thoughts.
In Part I
My favorite realization is that there is no objective test for mental illness. Like the subatomic realm, the brain to a large extent is a black box. We are just treating the symptoms we see (in physics, we see the indirect evidence of some things we can’t directly investigate). With over one hundred fifty genes involved in schizophrenia for instance, we sometimes can feel helpless against something we can’t see. In an industrial and technological age, we are used to diagnosing, treating and conquering things with science. We don’t like that we can’t change some things.
The show goes over the historical development in understanding mental illness. In the past, people would blame the Devil. With our limited knowledge, we did so in a quest for the meaning of it. The churches I initially went to 28 years ago tried to cast demons out of me. They meant well of course. They may have felt helpless.
I did have a little experience with dream interpretation and analysis of thoughts, but it wasn’t these things that helped me. Neither were the psychoanalytic ideas that I, my mother or anyone else was responsible. (My relatives did think that stress at college was responsible, but stress is only a catalyst for what was bound to happen because of genetics.) Past horrific treatments included starvation and abuse, like bleeding and what can only be termed, physical torture and electro-shock therapy (much more extreme than what is still used today).
I was also reminded that schizophrenia can get worse over time. Having tried dozens of med combinations, I am stable right now and the point is to sustain the positive effects of the meds. I do think that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) was slightly helpful and regular therapy still helps me.
The show is also right to point out that the pandemic has exasperated mental illnesses. There is some evidence that suicidal ideation has increased in a number of age groups. I have some anger here because of that.
In Part II
The topic of how we evolved from “who’s normal” and “who’s not” to a more compassionate set of diagnoses features heavily in this episode. The show covers how the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 1 (DSM1) used the terms “normal” and “not normal” and how now the DSM5 has evolved to not use those terms, but to have more specific diagnoses — 265 illnesses right now. My doctors have always given me loose diagnoses. They vary, having started with bipolar type I when I first got sick 28 years ago and then having evolved from schizophrenia to schizoaffective.
I didn’t like the implication that “conservative America” has been detrimental to those with mental illnesses. On the contrary, the American nuclear family — not perfect by any means — has been a positive force. Family is my primary support and I would love to have had both a mother and father, which is an ideal.
I also found that the parts about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was important and interesting. There are many soldiers, Marines, and first responders that experience it.
Though mentioned in an aside, the much-quoted Psalm 23 (“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”) has been a scripture that has assuredly helped me.
People should be able to overcome with pushing past certain thoughts and practices, taking their medications, and relying on family and friends.
I look forward to tonight’s third and fourth parts.