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Robin Williams and The Cultural Delusion We Are Conquering Mental Illness
Robin Williams’ apparent suicide is being used as an argument for more mental health treatment. Does that argument – or the treatment – work?
For some time we have assumed we are making great headway in fighting mental illness, and that it will soon disappear.
Here are the 1975 words of Norman Garmezy in his master lecture to the American Psychological Association: “We stand on the threshold of advances in the biological sciences so relevant to psychopathology that one can look forward in the decades ahead to an ultimate resolution of the major psychotic disorders that have plagued mankind for centuries.”
Forty years later, we have fallen far short of Garmezy’s anticipated scenario. But this has not dampened our hopes in the intervening years. The very movement to label emotional disorders as “illnesses,” along with popular and public health campaigns repeating ad infinitum, “mental illness is an illness like any other,” implies that schizophrenia, depression, bi-polar disorder, ADHD, et al. are curable and will be eliminated altogether.
Which brings us to the sad case of Robin Williams, a man who not only had much to live for, but one who frequently resorted to treatment for his depression and addictions. In July, the Huffington Post reported, “Robin Williams has checked into rehab for continued sobriety… he remains extremely proud” of what he has accomplished through treatment.
The number one recommendation following his death?
Seek treatment for problems like Williams’!
At the risk of insensitivity and gallows humor, it seems the treatment was a success but, that, unfortunately, the patient died. Although Williams shares this fate of dying almost immediately following rehab with any number of high profile cases – Amy Winehouse, Cory Monteith, Philip Seymour Hoffman – his case is unique in that he died by his own hand, rather than due to the substance use for which he was treated. Can we make sense of Williams’ death to help others?
Although Williams shares this fate of dying almost immediately following rehab with any number of high profile cases – Amy Winehouse, Cory Monteith, Philip Seymour Hoffman – his case is unique in that he died by his own hand, rather than due to the substance use for which he was treated.-Stanton Peele
Here is another optimistic quote from the 1970s combining the outlook for mental illness and addiction by neurologist Richard Restak. Restak has written frequently for newspapers, appears on the Today Show, NPR, etc., and his best sellers The Brain and The Mind were companion books to PBS series. In all these endeavors, Restak maintains the same quixotic line of thought that motivated this 1977 vision: “It’s hard to leave out the exclamation points when you are talking about a veritable philosopher’s stone – a group of substances that hold out the promise of alleviating, or even eliminating, such age-old medical bugaboos as pain, drug addiction, and, among other mental illnesses, schizophrenia.” (Restak is speaking of the endorphins.)
An Epidemic of Psychiatric Disorders
Although Restak and his audience have seemingly never become aware of it, the wheels have come off this wagon. In fact, we are undergoing an epidemic of psychiatric disorders. Not only have schizophrenia and depression skyrocketed since Restak blithely predicted their demise, but so too have conditions like ADHD and bi-polar disorder about which we were hardly aware in 1977.
Because there are so many more diagnoses of disorders and medications dispensed to treat mental illness, many theorists speculate that we are simply diagnosing nonexistent problems. But this claim is as unrealistic as the claims that we are curing mental illness. More and more people, starting in America, but spreading worldwide, are experiencing genuine psychological distress. Robin Williams, after all, killed himself.
How does Williams’ case reflect on the claim that mental illness – in his case depression – is a medical disorder for which we have effective treatments?-Stanton Peele
How does Williams’ case reflect on the claim that mental illness – in his case depression – is a medical disorder for which we have effective treatments? Why are he and so many others depressed? Were his parents and many others of their generation as depressed and suicidal as Williams? If not, why has this “disease” increased in the intervening years? By simple logical processing, we are brought up short when conceiving of depression and mental illness as curable diseases.
Moreover, given that Williams personally was long ago diagnosed for depression and addiction, and he had every means at his disposal to treat it, how come it was never halted, but rather worsened? What confidence might you and I have that we would be well served to go into treatment for our own depression? Think of this: under the label of “nervous breakdown,” before the modern mental health movement took off in the 1950s, people regularly overcame depression by undergoing “rest cures” in sanitariums.
Are There Genetic Sources for Mental Illness and Addiction?
Why this worldwide growth in mental illness is occurring would obviously require a comprehensive investigation and treatise to answer. Here is the short version. People are burdened emotionally by a growing sense of their own impotence in an increasingly unmanageable external world, while they turn inwards (and to manageable electronic devices, like iPhones and games) for solace and escape. At the same time, they are taught to look to failures in their brains (encouraged by many like Restak) for explanations for their problems.
People are burdened emotionally by a growing sense of their own impotence in an increasingly unmanageable external world, while they turn inwards… for solace and escape.-Stanton Peele
But their brains hold no cures. Why do I say that? The New York Times recently ran an article spurred by one man’s massive new private investment in uncovering the brain’s secrets so as to cure mental illness. But the authors of the Times article offer this caution: “Despite decades of costly research, experts have learned virtually nothing about the causes of psychiatric disorders and have developed no truly novel drug treatments in more than a quarter century.” Now that is sobering, isn’t it?
There is a growing sense of the failure of our previous efforts, from Restak and before (remember lobotomies?) through to the present. The most notable such failure came on the heels of the Human Genome Project that occupied the last decade of the twentieth century.
In fact, the HGP decisively laid to rest the idea that there were genes, and even broadly identifiable genetic causes, of mental illness.-Stanton Peele
It was widely hoped – and expected – that the genetic sources for mental illnesses would be identified, leading to cures for them. But that did not happen. In fact, the HGP decisively laid to rest the idea that there were genes, and even broadly identifiable genetic causes, of mental illness. Certainly, no one now looks for a gene (or even a set of genes) labeled, “addiction,” “depression,” “bipolar,” or “schizophrenia.”
What, then, is mental illness? What causes it? How do we improve, change and cure psychiatric conditions?
Mental illness is an insufficiency in coping with one’s environment that can take a variety of forms. It is influenced by the severity of an environment and the challenges it presents, the individual’s ability to cope and sense of self-efficacy, and the person’s social supports and community.
Go ahead and reduce that to brain circuitry, if you wish. Imagine that mental illness and addiction are coded in the person’s nervous system and DNA. So far, for the last 40 years, we are having difficulty locating them there. Perhaps we’ll solve those problems in the next forty years. Or some time in the future.
No we won’t. And we already know enough to be sure that this is so.
Photo Source: wikipedia.org