“Mental Illness” is a harmfully misleading phrase that causes suffering by design

I’ve spent close to twenty years looking for reasons behind why I was compelled to think and act suicidally when I was twenty seven years old.  While my search has yielded more questions than definitive answers thus far, I’m convinced that sharing what I’ve learned will help others.

Events happen, and then people think and say things about those events—let’s call those stories.  No matter how accurate or truthful a story is seen to be, events that have occurred and the stories that people tell about those events, are never the same thing.  They can’t be because one is an occurrence in reality while it’s happening, and the other is an after the fact symbolic representation meant to describe a prior real occurrence.  I’m no linguist, but this is the nature of language, right?  We use language and stories to encapsulate and communicate meaning about our reality and our conscious experience of that reality—every word is a story unto itself making sense of existence.  Every diagnosis of every “mental disorder” relies on a translation of stories.  A person tells a psychiatrist a story, and the psychiatrist maps that natural language story onto a “mental disorder” language story from a book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).  Millions of people assigned a “mental disorder” story or a “mental illness” diagnosis end up failing to see the basic event-story distinction I just pointed out.  They confuse their DSM diagnosis or “mental disorder story” with reality itself.  If you don’t believe me visit TheMighty.com, click on “Mental Illness” and start reading.  Unfortunately, many patients are also systematically misled to necessarily attribute the issue that prompted them to see a psychiatrist to a supposed specific brain pathology that mysteriously eludes specific definition and explanation.  

I made these mistakes after nearly killing myself nineteen years ago, in part, because of the forces of institutional corruption at work within our mental health care system written about by Robert Whitaker and Lisa Cosgrove in Psychiatry Under the Influence.  I share this true story as an anecdotal example of those corrupting forces in action.  It is my hope that others won’t make the avoidable cognitive mistakes that I made during my treatment.  I also hope to inspire the many well-intentioned but misguided “lived experience” mental health advocates who are confused like I was to think differently.  They are unwitting participants in this harmful confusion’s perpetuation.  

A few days after I unintentionally fell asleep inside of a car that I had intentionally turned into a makeshift gas chamber, a psychiatrist told me that I was suffering from a “mental illness” called Major Depressive Disorder after talking with me for less than fifteen minutes.  That’s all the time it took him to gather enough information to know which “mental illness” was plaguing me and how to treat it.  He prescribed me a medication called Paxil as he mentioned something vague about the amount of a neurotransmitter in my brain called serotonin and selective reuptake inhibition.  I also began seeing a psychologist for talk therapy twice a week.  In just three or four months I was feeling like my old self again—the same amount of time it had taken me to go from feeling fine to putting myself in that rigged car.  I believed the story my psychiatrist told me about the cause of my despair.  He gave me the name of an apparent disorder with my brain, and a pill to fix the problem.  Back then, it seemed to me that the Paxil did more to help me than anything the psychologist and I discussed.  That assumption was a costly one for me, and my family.  

It led me to make two consequential mistakes that millions of other people diagnosed with a “mental illness” also make.  First, I failed to see my diagnosis as a view of reality, mistaking it for reality itself.  I conflated a series of actual events from my life with a boilerplate story about a “mental disorder” from a big book.  Doctors are trusted authorities.  When you’re unquestionably hurting, it’s comforting when a trusted authority gives you an officially-sanctioned medical reason for why you feel so horrible, and better yet, a remedy to help you.  My mistake was compounded when I came to believe that my diagnosis mapped onto a specific brain pathology necessarily responsible for my problematic thoughts, feelings and behaviors.  My doctor gave no serious consideration to any psychological, social or environmental factors that contributed to the mindset from which my suicidal behavior emerged.  He couldn’t have—he didn’t know enough about any of those factors.  It is no surprise that I blamed my brain for my problems, like millions of other “mental patients” do.  Our collective confusion about a specific brain pathology necessarily being the sole or at least primary causal culpability for our problems is proof of the influence of the forces of institutional corruption within the mental health care system.  

A deeper examination of my suicidal crisis subsequent to receiving my “mental illness” diagnosis revealed how childish, fearful, egocentric thinking and bad luck led me down a path towards self-destruction.  To clarify “egocentric” I’m not talking about arrogance, narcissism or even self-preoccupation.  At the heart of my egocentrism in my younger years was the failure to readily recognize that my view of reality, was a point of view at all.  Growing up I prided myself on being right.  I prided myself on objective, quantitative measures of just how right I was.  I was especially proud when I was deemed 100% right.  Egocentric people become attached to being right, and they often are.  I became so accustomed to being right, that I confused my view of reality with reality itself.  I almost killed myself, in part, because of this confusion, this conflation of what I thought was happening with what was actually happening.  Sounds familiar, right?  There were four other types of childish and/or fearful thinking that led me from being involved in an awkward exchange during a routine business meeting in Toronto to genuinely believing that I was an unintelligent, overcompensated fraud of a human being destined to disappoint my father and myself.  Those types of thinking are called catastrophizing, overgeneralizing, black and white thinking and past counter-example blocking.  Any cognitive behavioral therapy resource of value will explain each of these in detail.  This explanation of the factors that led to my psychological and emotional struggle is patently more accurate and more practically useful than anything my psychiatrist told me.

Nineteen years later, it’s evident that me believing that my suicidal behavior necessarily resulted from a “mental illness” was more beneficial to the psychiatrist who told me that than it was for me.  I’m not claiming that this was a fault of my doctor or a sign of bad faith or ill-intent on his part.  His profession trained him to look for different nails to hit with different hammers, and I was a perfect fit for a hit from Paxil.  He was just doing his job—playing his role in a system.  Unfortunately, like millions of other people who are given a “mental illness” diagnosis, I came to see my diagnosis as a defining part of my identity (only temporarily fortunately for me!) because of my respect for my doctor’s authority, and my belief that my problem was necessarily in my brain.  This belief led me to seriously entertain the fallacy that I was biologically destined to suffer from despair over and over again.  I’m so grateful that someone was willing and able to inspire me to question my psychiatrist’s story about the cause of my suffering.  Powerful authority figures implying that brain pathology is necessarily to blame for the suffering behind “mental illnesses” increases the chances of people believing that they need to buy pharmaceutical remedies to be well.  How else are psychiatrists who only prescribe meds going to their pay bills?  Ironically and probably unbeknownst to the vast majority of people diagnosed with a “mental illness” the DSM itself, the book that contains the rules governing their diagnosis, was disavowed as invalid by the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health four years ago.  When announcing that no more federal dollars would be spent on research based on the DSM going forward, Dr. Thomas Insel said that diagnosing a “mental illness” by asking a patient about her feelings was analogous to diagnosing a heart patient by asking her about her chest pain.  I’m not arguing that “mental illness” does not exist, and in defense of the DSM, I will grant that it explicitly states that the causes of “mental disorders” are believed to be biological, psychological and social or environmental.   My argument is that the words used to describe a problem, and the assumptions those words imply, by definition, can be a causal factor in the problem continuing to exist, or worse yet, new problems arising.  This is clearly the case with the term “mental illness.”  

President Trump continually reminds us of the importance of the language we use to describe problems, and how some language helps perpetuate problems and create new ones.  I am committed to changing the world by changing the words that people use when they talk about “mental illness.”

Here’s an example:


You have a “mental illness” or a “mental defect” resulting from a specific, yet somehow unidentifiable, brain pathology that is causing you psychological and emotional distress.  You can treat your “mental disorder” with a chemical made in a lab that will hopefully mysteriously correct your brain pathology for as long as you can bear the undesirable effects of that chemical.


Learning more about yourself, the human condition and the many different approaches proven to help other people maximize their own well-being will help you to grow into a person who experiences less and less psychological and emotional distress over time.


If I still haven’t convinced you, please consider this final example from history that hopefully more clearly illustrates my point that a “mental disorder” or a “mental illness” diagnosis is necessarily a subjective story about events, and not an objective description of a constellation of thoughts and behaviors that are necessarily caused by a specific brain pathology.

Imagine it’s 1972 and a man visits a psychiatrist because despite having a great relationship with his lover and a great job, he’s miserable.  He’s been estranged from his entire family, and he is suffering a great deal as a result.  He can’t sleep.  He’s constantly anxious, and he’s feeling quite hopeless about things ever getting better.  He explains that all of his problems arose when he admitted to his family, a few weeks ago, that his lover was a man.  His family said that they never wanted to see or speak with him again.  The doctor tells the man that the source of his problem is a “mental disorder” in the DSM called Homosexuality.  The man is the son of a southern Baptist minister, and he has been ashamed of his attraction to men his whole life.  He respects his doctor, and his father too.  In fact, he thinks they’re both right.  He sees his love and sexual desire for men as sinful urges that he is supposed to resist, but he is incapable of doing so.  He sees his homosexual acts as mortal sins, and evidence of brain pathology. Feeling utterly hopeless, lost and beyond redemption, a month after being diagnosed with the Homosexuality “mental disorder” the man kills himself.

Please consider helping me spread the idea that “mental illness” is a harmfully misleading phrase that causes suffering by design.

3/9/2017 Update

Evidence supporting the claim that my belief that I had a brain disease in need of pharmaceutical treatment was more beneficial to my psychiatrist:

My stay at the private mental hospital subsequent to nearly dying by suicide was five days long.  I spoke with my psychiatrist on three separate occasions during my five day stay.  We spoke briefly on the day I was admitted.  We bumped into each other once, and spoke for less than five minutes.  And we spoke for about ten minutes on the day I was discharged, and went home.  While reviewing my bill, after being discharged, I noticed that I was billed for “Individual psychotherapy” five times, one charge for each day of my stay.  If memory serves, the charge was $125.  When I called the mental hospital to inform them of the obvious billing error, I was informed that every patient in the facility was charged in this manner.  I explained how this seemed patently fraudulent and unethical to me given the literal definition of the word psychotherapy.  The person I spoke with apologized but said there was nothing she could do, remarking something like, “That’s just how it works.”

The first time I thought and behaved in a way that matched the diagnostic criteria for a “manic episode” found in the DSM occurred after I ingested Paxil.  I’m aware this fact doesn’t prove that the Paxil was the proximate cause of this development in my life, but given the wealth of evidence supporting the hypothesis that anti-depressants like Paxil often have iatrogenic effects on the people who take them, like inducing mania, for example, it’s reasonable to consider that my treatment for Major Depressive Disorder was a causal factor in me exhibiting behavior that led a different psychiatrist to diagnose me with Bipolar Disorder I.

How a vomit-fearing eight year old mistook self-transcendence for amnesia

I was five years old in 1976  when my two-year old sister Kristin began to choke on a Life Saver candy that I gave her.  Luckily our dad was with us in the kitchen at the time, and he went into life-saving hero mode.  After a few terrifying moments spent not solving the problem by clapping his little Kiki on the back with his hand, he reached into her mouth with his index finger, and triggered her gag reflex.  After a quick stomach convulsion followed immediately by  an even quicker head dodge by my dad, my sister projectile vomited a stream of yellowish, mostly-liquid puke that splashed down a few feet away all over the light green linoleum floor.  The offending yellow Life Saver was expelled along with the contents of her stomach, and the hysterical sobs that immediately followed confirmed that Kristin was breathing easy again.  This harrowing experience turned me into someone with an irrational and, at times, overwhelming fear of vomiting, also known as emetophobia.  

My sister’s Life Saver-choking incident led me to conflate nausea and throwing up with the risk of imminent death I think, so future bouts with vomit-inducing, contagious infections in our house became stress-filled, nerve-wracking ordeals for me.  I’d have these psychosomatic-nausea-panic attacks where I’d end up sprinting to the bathroom convinced I was about to barf.  I’d be down on my knees, staring into the toilet bowl with my index fingers pressed hard into my ears desperately hoping to prevent myself from hearing what I thought was about to happen.  Knowing that I was abnormally troubled by the prospect of throwing up just piled embarrassment and shame on top of fear and anxiety for me.  While I only threw up a few times as a child, every encounter I had with every vomit-inducing infection over the subsequent decade was one accompanied by paranoia, fear and stress.  My search for solace from these ills led me to make a remarkable discovery when I was just eight years old.  

It was at the end of the summer of 1979, and Kristin was sick again, this time from an infection apparently.  She’d thrown up twice after dinner the day before.  As a matter of habit given my infection-evading regime, I retreated to the bedroom that I shared with my older brother Mark.  He wasn’t there, so I closed the door behind me and sat on the edge of my bed facing a window that looked out onto the front yard.  My head was positioned so I couldn’t see any part of my body when I looked straight ahead through the window.  

Branches of a birch tree swayed up and down in the gentle summer breeze.  With my gaze fixed and unfocused, I fell into a comfortable state of silent reverie as I thought about what was going on:  I thought why did Kristin have to get sick?  Why am I so afraid of throwing up?  Why do people throw up?  Why does it have to be this way?  Why does it have to be like this?  Why is it like this?  Why is it the way it is?  Why is what is happening, happening?  What is going on?  What is… is?  What is… existence?  What is… is?  What is… existing?  What is… is?  What is being?  What does that mean, to be?  What is is?  I repeated that last question silently to myself over and over again.  What is is?  What is is? What is is?

After about half a minute or so focused on contemplating that question something extraordinary happened.  I lost my sense of self.  The voice in my head went silent as I stopped thinking… completely.  I forgot who I was and what was going on in my life.  My ever-present frame of reference for the world vanished.  With it went my sense of time and awareness of my body too.  The scene in front of me remained the same, the branches of the birch tree were still rising and falling in the breeze, but the sense that I was looking at the tree from somewhere behind my eyes was missing.  There was just the world and my selfless awareness of it.  It was a blissful state of mind where all that was felt interconnected.  Gone was the sense of being separate from my surroundings.  Everything that existed was part of the same one thing.  Complete.  Unbound.  Free.  Whole.  All that was, was one.  And I… my sense of me… was nowhere to be found.

This detached, egoless state of consciousness didn’t last for very long—maybe five seconds at most—but it was a mind-blowing wonder to me.  It made me dizzy, and caused my head to dip.  I saw my legs, and my brief taste of this selfless awareness came to an abrupt end.  When the spell broke, my sense of self, memories of my past, and knowledge of my present all snapped back into place in an instant.  I was a stressed out eight year old emetophobe again, re-oriented once more to the story the voice in my head had been narrating for years.   I had stumbled into and out of a state of self-transcendence, without recognizing it as such because I had no context to do so.  Instead, my eight year old mind, so accustomed and comfortable with its own sense of self, misinterpreted the experience as some kind of self-induced, momentary spell of amnesia.  This seemed unlikely to me, so I had to try to do it again.  I wanted to know if forgetting myself and my worries was something I could do on demand.

I focused my attention from the start, on the final question from the first time:  What is is?  Just like before, after about thirty seconds of intense concentration, I lost my sense of self again, and entered that same timeless state of consciousness like before.  I felt free, at peace and connected to everything.  Complete and whole.  Once again, the few awe-filled moments I spent temporarily unencumbered by my usual mental luggage made me dizzy, and caused my head to dip.  My second visit to this ego-transcendent state was as brief as the first, but delight displaced my disbelief when the spell ended this time.  Finding the blissfully discombobulating state of consciousness again, with such relative ease, convinced me that I hadn’t imagined the whole thing.  Plus I seemed to have some grasp on how to make it happen on demand, and I was quite content to have this know-how at my disposal for future bouts with barf-inducing infections that I knew I would inevitably face.

Many years later it seems that the most remarkable aspect of my chance discovery was my monumental misunderstanding of what I had experienced.  At eight years old, I was already married to the idea that my self was the essential part of me that was located somewhere inside of my skull behind my eyes.  I saw my “self” or “I” if you prefer, as the general manager of my consciousness, the controller of the voluntary actions of my body, the thinker of my thoughts, the decider of my decisions, the chooser of my choices and the imaginer of my imaginings.  “I” was the subject of every experience I experienced, and the source or the author of the ever-present voice in my head.  As an altar-boy-to-be who was raised by Roman Catholic parents, I referred to this essential part of me, this nucleus of control that I believed was guiding my consciousness, as my spirit or my soul.  This was the supposedly free-willing, supposedly eternal part of me, that my mother told me would survive the death of my body, and continue to have experiences of a kind that were unimaginable to me while I was still alive.  I was so attached to this view of myself as the central controlling authority in my life that I mistook my relief from emetophobic distress as a brief escape from reality versus what I view it as, almost forty years later.  Now, it seems apparent to me, that my spontaneous, impromptu meditation provided me with a momentary glimpse of an incredible truth about the human experience that I wasn’t able to comprehend at eight years old:  

As I see it, there is no essential “self” there’s no central “I” or “me” anywhere inside or outside of my body that controls it or the thoughts, intentions and feelings that arise within my consciousness.  The voice in my head that I previously self-identified with and saw as the genuine controller of every decision I made, isn’t in control of anything.  Just because knowledge of what I’m about to do arrives within my field of consciousness before anyone else’s, doesn’t mean that I consciously decide the course of history.  Thinking that any single individual possesses that power stems from a confused and necessarily egotistical view of personhood.  Instead, I believe that we are miraculous, meaning-making, storytelling animals that are playing our roles in the unfolding of the cosmos, we’re not authoring them.  No one consciously controls the events occurring in their brain that they are unaware of and that lead to every single thought that pops into their consciousness.  

No one.