The idea that there must be something seriously wrong with individuals who transgress social norms or conventions is very old and has been used throughout the ages, most notably by the Catholic Church. In the middle ages, for example, people who chose to think for themselves, live independently and not believe in the teachings of the dominant Catholic Church were regarded as heretics and blamed for engaging in pacts with the devil. In modern times the name of the heretic has changed to mental patient. We no longer speak about what used to be known as spiritual problems (supposedly caused by some kind of demonic possession) but physical problems such as mental illness (supposedly caused by some chemical imbalances in the brain, or some sort of trauma that occurred early on in childhood).
Although mental patients are not being blamed for their so called “mental illness“ they are blamed if they chose to refuse to accept “help” from those who supposedly know best (i.e. the mental health professionals, e.g. psychiatrists, psychologists, counsellors, etc.). The very existence of so called “mental health services” (or “mental hell services” as I prefer to call them) and the massive lobbying for psychotherapeutic interventions to combat what is defined as “mental illness“ produces intense social pressure on people to get a cure for their apparent “sickness”. If they feel that there is nothing wrong with them and choose not to accept any help they are blamed for being “difficult” and resistant, which is really about striving for independence and autonomy. The success of the mental health propaganda machine can be most notably seen in the US where a large proportion of society regularly receives psychiatric “treatment“. People are constantly being reprimanded for taking the wrong kind of drugs, having the wrong kind of weight, or the wrong kind of thoughts and they more or less willingly turn to their masters, the so called “mental health experts“ to make it all better. Of course there is no right or wrong but simply conformity to an ideology which is sold as the norm (i.e. the norm as defined by mental health professionals).
There seems to be something very convenient and comforting about the notion that problems in society are simply due to a group of people who seem somewhat alien (note that psychiatrists used to be called alienists as they were dealing with people who found themselves alienated from mainstream society, because they were poor, unemployed, homeless, not married, etc.) compared to mainstream society. I am talking about scapegoats here and society’s attempt to explain it’s difficulties away by blaming groups that are different and doing away with them in a desperate attempt to establish order. This brings me to the point about “mental” disorder, which is one way society tries to make sense of people who are different and seemingly undermine its very values and conventions (e.g. to be heterosexual, to consume the right drugs with moderation, wanting to be alive, etc.). So it comes that in modern times indifference, non-conformity, rejection or outright protest in relation to society’s moral code of conduct is regarded to be due to some kind of “mental illness”. Surely, one must be mad if one does not care about or does not want to uphold what society regards as important (e.g. getting married and having a family; having a proper job; etc.), right? So really, what we are talking about here is the lack of conformity and obedience and the abundance of independence and autonomy.
Psychiatry has established very clear and strict guidelines of what it regards as acceptable ways of behaving, feeling and thinking about the world (see “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”, DSM). If one steps out of line one can quickly be declared to have a “mental illness” and to be in need of psychotherapy. What this really means is that one does not behave, feel, and think in a way that is acceptable to the psychiatric doctrine and therefore requires correction. Psychiatry has created numerous facilities in which mental patients are dealt with. For some strange reason psychiatry refers to “mental hospitals” when talking about these institutions as if to suggest that inmates (i.e. prisoners) were actual patients afflicted by some kind of disease from which they are meant to be cured. In reality, these institutions are correctional facilities aimed at shaping the individual so he or she conforms to psychiatry’s code of conduct. What makes these facilities ultimately worse than prisons is that one can be admitted to them indefinitely without even having committed an actual crime. In prison you pay for what you have done with your liberty. In mental hospitals you pay for how you feel and think about yourself, others and the world in general.
So what happens to you when you are declared mentally ill? You will receive so called psychiatric treatment often against your will. The term itself is an interesting one. It is composed of “psyche” which obviously refers to the mind, and the suffix “-iatry“, which is Greek and means “to cure“. So psychiatry deals with what it describes as the cure of the diseased or sick mind. Again, this is not a new idea but simply a new term for what the Catholic Church has been practising for about two millennia by saving “lost souls” and bringing salvation. Both secular priests (e.g. psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists, and counsellors) representing the powerful institutions of science and medicine, and clerical priests apparently representing god’s will on earth listen to people’s troubles, offer advice, support and comfort, while upholding the principles of warmth, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard. Just like it is the case in traditional religious interventions, the so called mental health patient has to be repentant and pay penance by agreeing to some form of punishment such as confinement (similar to seclusion and isolation in monasticism), psychotropic drug treatment (similar to the use of holy water), electroconvulsive therapy (similar to the use of flagellation), and/or psychotherapy sessions (similar to confessing one’s sins, as well as praying for forgiveness). In relation to conversational psychotherapy, the notion that is beneficial to have a discussion with someone else about one’s troubles dates back to Greek philosophers who would practise the art of what they referred to as “healing words” (“iatroi logoi“, Aeschylus, ca. 525 – 456 B.C.). For those philosophers this was not so much about being a science, the way we talk about it today, but more a form of healing rhetoric, intended to please and comfort, influence and persuade another. One of the earliest philosophers to suggest the notion that individuals can be so distressed that would leave them no longer able to help themselves was proposed by Cicero (106-43 B.C): “The soul that is sick cannot rightly prescribe for itself, except by following the instruction of wise men“. This idea was obviously very much welcomed by the Catholic Church and later by psychiatry in order to justify their existence as society’s guardian and protector from evil and “mental illness”, respectively.