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Starter thoughts on something like Mental Illness

in Featured/Mad Thoughts by

I wish to occupy madness.

Before you give up on me, let me give you a reason, just one, but an old, traditional one: I wish to have the same rights and powers as a court jester or a fool, namely, to speak the truth without fear. Madness, if you think about it, gives you that protection. Philosophy, which I also occupy, is closely linked to the tradition of the fool, starting perhaps with Diogenes the Cynic in ancient Greece. Diogenes is said to have shown his attitude to authority and power when the emperor Alexander came to visit him because of the philosopher’s fame for being the wisest man alive. When Alexander asked Diogenes if there was any wish he could grant him, Diogenes asked Alexander to move out of the way of the sun, for the emperor was blocking his rays. So much for deference to authority and power.

Let me invite you to think about mental illness and let me suggest to you that if you are afraid of the topic, consider two things. ‘Mental illness’ is a couple of words, a fairly recent and problematic English phrase. And instead of fear, think: gift. However hard that may be at first. I am not saying that mental illness is a gift (after all, I’ve just played with ‘it’ being just words) but I am saying think about the encounter with something like mental illness as a gift.

A ‘very simple gift’

I’ll tell you where I’m coming from in this: sitting at the Waterford — for the very few residing in St. John’s or Newfoundland to whom it is not clear what that word means, think mental hospital, loony bin, nut-ward, hell — with a male friend of mine who’s been temporarily designated an involuntary patient (and I write carefully now for I know the great trust involved in personal relationships which touch — and think about how many, if any, don’t touch — on mental illness, or something like it). In that dirty, ugly, random, sometimes deathly quiet, sometimes shriekingly loud, atmosphere (if it qualifies for it’s so hard to breathe in there), what happened? I won’t tell directly, I cannot tell you exactly, for reasons any thinking person could think up if they tried, but also because I’m reluctant taking the straightest line from one point to another. So perhaps I am mad and that explains my interest in these things.

A conversation like none you could imagine, I bet you, at least not in its remarkable detail, acute vulnerability, and stunning honesty.

Or perhaps my early experiences as an adult occupying a position of some authority and trust made me wary of the default social treatment of people suffering with mental trauma, namely, treat ‘them’ as different and never, ever, become ‘their’ friends (I began my teaching career at the age of eighteen at a National Institutes of Mental Health minimum security facility for adolescents in Leesburg, Virginia).

What happened, last week, in that ward? Not much. A very simple gift. An honest, vulnerable exchange of conversation between two grown men, two friends. A conversation like none you could imagine, I bet you, at least not in its remarkable detail, acute vulnerability, and stunning honesty. Try it, consider thinking about the encounter with mental illness as a gift, thinking about what’s perhaps most difficult (rather than unthinkingly adopting the default position, always the easiest, of dumping whatever’s difficult in a dark box, without, in this case, any fair hope it could ever take care of itself).

An unfortunate divide

The fears and stigmas surrounding mental illness will not go away, no matter what new terminologies are encouraged, because of a fundamental fact: being on the right side of the sane/insane world-divide is a constant struggle for the best of us. If you accept this and the observation that, without openness and friendly assistance, most people will hide their fears silently and in solitude, then there’s no wonder there’s stigma and fear.

…being on the right side of the sane/insane world-divide is a constant struggle for the best of us. If you accept this and the observation that, without openness and friendly assistance, most people will hide their fears silently and in solitude, then there’s no wonder there’s stigma and fear.

That stigma and fear are the whole problem is itself another problem. Simply accept that madness is mental illness, a medical disorder, we are told, and the stigma disappears. If, only if.
But the stigma does not disappear for underneath the stigma lies sanism, a robust and typical prejudice that does not discriminate based on medical status, that is, whether or not medicine recognizes or owns ‘mental illness,’ for the sanists, who are most of us, simply do not like nor wish to tolerate the mad. The mad are too close to the frailties and weaknesses of the sane, and as such, so sanism goes, they shall not be tolerated (nor shall they have the rights that even sane persons these days struggle to possess).

Problems, lots of problems, with mental illness. So I have offered a simple start, a simple switch in attitude, from fear to acceptance of a gift, an opportunity to think, to really think in all of thinking’s wonder and precarity, what it is to be the kind of animal that has the capacity to make its own world.

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