Trying to CHANGE the WORLD by changing the words that Kevin Hines uses when talking about “mental illness”

Kevin Hines is a suicide attempt survivor who is partially responsible for the fact that I write and speak about my suicidal crisis.  He’s a living inspiration.  That said, we don’t always necessarily see eye to eye on the subject of the most empowering way to talk about the suffering associated with “mental illness.”

Kevin published the following post this morning on Facebook from Australia. (emphasis mine):

Sat down with me ol’ pal, I today consider a brother… the incomparable, tattoo covered man himself, Ben Higgs he’s been through a lot, and has triumphed over great adversity. It’s an honor so share a cup of tea with him and talk all things #MentalHealth and #BrainWellbeing Ben believes in the idea that we “live” with mental illness just as one lives with any other true disease. He spreads his message right across Oz and soon around the globe! Ben is a proud member of #TeamRippleWorld & #TeamRippleOz & will very soon have a featured episode in our forthcoming show… #HopeTheRippleEffect Australia a series about stories like Mr. Higgs From all walks of life in Oz. He’ll be headed to America soon with #TeamRippleWorld for the National Council for Behavioral Health 2017 conference, and we are excited!

I will let Kevin correct me if I am mistaken, but he also “believes in the idea that we ‘live’ with mental illness just as one lives with any other true disease.”

I replied with the following comment:

“Ben believes in the idea that we ‘live’ with mental illness just as one lives with any other true disease.” Would you have told this to people diagnosed with the “homosexuality” mental disorder prior to 1973?  i.e., “Jim, You need to face the fact that your desire to have sex with Steve is a symptom of your diseased brain. These feelings are symptoms of your true disease called homosexuality just like your angina is a symptom of your heart disease.”

My concern is that you imply that the cause of “mental illness” is necessarily a brain pathology despite the fact that the DSM itself notes that the causes of “mental disorders” are believed to be biological, psychological and social or environmental. Leaving aside the fact that the NIMH stopped DSM-oriented research into the causes of “mental illness” four years ago, it seems clear to me that your message of hope about the nature of human suffering includes a potentially disempowering idea: you’re destined to live with this problem your whole life because your brain doesn’t work right. Your exact message or one like it propagated prior to 1973 undoubtedly led some? many? to die by suicide. I think it’s important to consider that it still can. Surely someone’s fallacious beliefs can lead them to engage in disordered thinking & behavior.  No brain pathology is necessary.  A person can exhibit the signs of “mental illness” with a brain that is functioning perfectly.

Kevin responded as follows:

I’m sorry Francesco Bellafante but I “live” with this every single day. Period. I live well with it most days. I work hard to stay mentally well. Often, I miss the mark. But you are completely invalidating my and Ben Higgs and others personal experiences by sticking so closely to the ideals of the (late) Einstein. Not everything he said, wrote down, or was quoted to have invented is gospel. I’ve read quite a bit of his work. In that regard (and in no way am I comparing myself to him) Neither is anything I’ve said. It’s really open to interpretation based on the individual and their experiences. You have not lived my life. This is the second article you’ve written while debunking words I say. Interesting… Margaret HinesLauren Kate Breen and others..thoughts ?

And I responded in turn as follows:

“But you are completely invalidating my and Ben Higgs and others personal experiences by sticking so closely to the ideals of the (late) Einstein.”

With all due respect Kevin, I didn’t write a single word that invalidates your personal experience brother, rather I am challenging the implications and/or claims that you guys are making based on your experience. This is an important difference. Plus, my comments made no mention of and do not rely on anything that Albert Einstein said, nor on my own free will skepticism. Words matter, and so do facts. I would respectfully disagree that facts are up for interpretation. Your messaging consistently implies that “mental illness” necessarily results from brain pathology. This claim doesn’t stand up to empirical scrutiny. If that’s not a belief of yours, then my confusion is important information for you, because that’s the message that I get from your communication, and as I said in my prior post… I think this is a potentially disempowering message. I.e., If you have a “mental illness” you need to accept that you are destined to live with this problem your whole life… because your brain doesn’t work right.
Events happen, and then people think and say things about those events—let’s call those stories. No matter how true a story is, events that have occurred and the stories that people tell about those events, are never the same thing. They can’t be. One is an occurrence in reality as it’s happening. The other is an after the fact symbolic representation. We use language, we use stories to encapsulate and communicate meaning about reality as it seems to us. 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” story from a book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, also known as the DSM. I failed to remember the basic event-story distinction I described a moment ago when I was told my “mental disorder” story about my past after nearly dying by suicide.

I confused my DSM diagnosis or “mental disorder story” with reality itself. I conflated a boilerplate story from a big book with a story about a series of events from my life. When you’re suffering, it’s comforting when a doctor, a trusted authority, gives you an officially-sanctioned medical reason for why you feel so horrible, and better yet, a remedy to help you. I made another critical mistake when I was diagnosed. I believed that my diagnosis mapped onto a specific brain pathology that was necessarily responsible for my problematic thoughts, feelings and behaviors. My psychiatrist didn’t know enough about the psychological and social or environmental factors in my life to seriously consider them before diagnosing and treating me. It is no surprise that I mistakenly blamed my brain for my problems, like millions of other “mental patients” do. I was so grateful that there was a pill that could repair the problem in my brain, and help me feel like myself again. “Diabetics take insulin to fix diabetes. I take Paxil to fix my brain, and to avoid feeling depressed!” I thought. Essentially, I was told and believed, that I was a mentally ill person who would have to cope with my mental illness for the rest of my life.

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 the doctor’s fault or a sign of ill-intent on his part. He was trained to look for different “nails” to hit with different “hammers,” and I was a decidedly perfect fit for a hit from Paxil. He was just doing his job, and playing his role in a system whose approach to solving the problem of human suffering has evidently been corrupted by profit-maximizing motives. (See Whitaker’s and Cosgrove’s – Psychiatry Under the Influence.)

Unfortunately, like millions of other people diagnosed with a “mental illness” I came to see that diagnosis as a defining part of my identity for a period of time. I didn’t think that I had or was exhibiting the signs of a “mental illness” — rather I thought, “I am a mentally ill person.” A respected authority led me to believe that I had a brain disease, and I saw no reason to doubt him at the time. My belief led me to seriously entertain the fallacy that I was biologically destined to suffer from despair over and over again, unless of course I continued to ingest the Paxil tablets. I’m beyond grateful that someone was willing and able to inspire me to question my psychiatrist’s explanation for the cause of my suffering. White coat clad authority figures (and world famous advocates like you brother!!!) 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.

I’m not arguing that “mental illness” doesn’t exist or that people should never consider taking a psych medication. I’m simply questioning if the medical paradigm of “mental illness” is the best way for us to address the problem of certain types of human suffering.

2 Replies to “Trying to CHANGE the WORLD by changing the words that Kevin Hines uses when talking about “mental illness””

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *