By: Laurel Elders, MCC, CEC
When you hear the term "mental illness," what comes to mind? I notice feelings of shame and worry come up for me. I struggled with anxiety and depression inter-changeably throughout my teens and early adulthood. I've seen how mental illness can carry a stigma in our culture, and I believe the reason for that is worth unearthing.
Have you noticed? Western definitions of mental illness do not fully capture what is going on at a causal level. It only speaks to the symptoms, not the actual phenomenon of the human experience.
Being that Western ideology is primary focused on effect and not cause, Western approaches are very susceptible to fallibility. Western systems of thought were highly influenced by Decarte, who broke things down into minute categories to better understand them.
While this compartmentalization approach is highly effective at uncovering intricacies, it falls flat when it comes to understanding cause and effect beyond the system being examined. For example, identifying the peritoneum of a frog is one aspect of the whole truth of a frog at the micro level. How the frog fits into the bigger web of life is the macro.
Fragmenting, compartmentalizing, and categorizing are so linearly focused on the micro they fail to include macro implications (aka the bigger picture).
In other words, focusing solely on the category acts like blinders keeping us from truly seeing how a phenomenon is interconnected to the web of life. True wisdom is born from understanding life's inner- and interconnectivity, cause and effect, the macro and the micro implications. I believe the Westernized emphasis on one side of the coin is one of humankind's most dangerous leaps into blind-spots, especially when it comes to understanding internal humanity.
Consider how our collective technology is growing faster than our collective emotional intelligence. This fosters dangerous implications of unintended consequences. It means that people emotionally fueled to produce new tech at a rat-race (ego-driven) level have big-picture blinders on.
We are already seeing the consequence of the "don't label it" GMO round-up-ready food causing an explosion of health implications and digestion concerns at best and cancer and death at worst. The decision-makers driving the lack of transparency have wreaked havoc on people. When leaders operate on deficient levels of emotional intelligence, this decreases sound decision-making. Yet these companies view themselves as successful because their linear focus is on the micro-science. The micro-science is being used to justify the behaviors.
The other consequences we experience are half-baked theories that only stand up when examined at the micro level. Half-baked theories automatically lack the wisdom of understanding the macro and the interplay between the micro and macro.
"You think because you understand "one" you must also understand "two",
because one and one make two. But you must also understand "and".
The problem? The interplay of micro and macro is where we see the full scope of cause and effect. Understanding the macro carries more implications than the micro – (unless you get into quantum physics, which ironically circles us back to the causal creative nature that the micro has on the macro – energy to matter).
How does this relate to mental illness? I posit our Westernized view and definition of "mental illness" is off by a long shot and still half baked.
Western influence has us studying everything as if it is separate. In our universities we have a mathematics department, physics department, psychology, art, engineering, etc. The problem is that nothing is separate, and I see how studying them linearly comes with sobering limitations. Where is the integration, wholeness, and interconnectivity department?
So when you study and treat a human being as a mind, a body, or a brain only, you are missing seven other important human potential factors. The mind is only one domain of human potential. We also have somatic, emotional, relational, motivational, energetic, spiritual, and integrational domains. Leaving them out of the equation as we study human psychology means we are viewing a smaller picture or greater truths with our linear blinders on. It is the same in algebra. When the formula is wrong, we can't solve the problem.
I say it is time to realize we've got the formula on "mental illness" wrong. I say it is time we realize there is wisdom in approaching the interconnected truth of all life, including the truth of the humanity within us and how this is interconnected to the whole.
Not only do I think we've missed the mark when we use terms like "mental illness," but I've also seen how this has even caused emotional damage to some or stifled full emotional, cognitive freedom in others.
I see therapists feeling the frustrations behind the linear approaches taught by universities and who are transitioning to coaching because Westernized therapy is not addressing the true reality of who and what we are. I’ve seen other the therapists that moved beyond linearity in their approach with greater success than when they stuck to the linear.
Maslow also realized interconnectivity, and humanistic psychology embraces these bigger truths. Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman is another modern pioneer of whole-person, horizontal growth, and wholeness-based truths about being human. Thank you, Dr. Kaufman!
So if we missed the mark, what is the bigger truth at the micro and macro levels?
First, let's address the term "mental illness."
From an integral vantage point, what we classify as "mental illness" is not an illness. The symptoms we refer to as "mental illness" is a state of internal disintegration exacerbated by many factors from trauma to a lack of spiritual connection. It is a state of lived experience, and I fail to see how a lived experience is a disease.
There can also be somatic implications of some symptoms, like not getting enough vitamin B12 foods, needing more sunlight, or needing more exercise.
From a mind-body-spirit perspective, the "pathologies" that are diagnosable are all states of disintegration. When we stay in the lanes only seeing a person as a brain or body, then the only thing left to do is call it “illness”. Yet, there is more to the picture being left out of a much bigger equation.
What happens when we enter disintegration is the egoic self becomes afraid. This is because when we disintegrate, we experience inner fragmentation, and our wholeness (emotional stability) seems to be nowhere to be found. This, in turn, creates a fear state that induces confusion between our true self and our shadow self.
At the core essence of our being, we are whole. There is a part within us that is whole and healed. Trauma and ego defenses shrowd this wholeness. In coaching, when people begin to integrate, their self-awareness expands to the degree that previous defense mechanisms that the egoic self built are no longer required.
The symptoms of integration and living through our wholeness include self-empowerment, ownership, renewed responsiveness, inner peace, and life purpose. As our personal intelligence expands, the previous symptoms of fear and defense are no longer needed because self-agency (wholeness) has taken root. I believe this is what Oprah was referring to when she said, "Turn your wounds into your wisdom."
The presenting symptoms of what we are calling "mental illness" reflect a deeper existential crisis when we experience trauma and our first wounding. What if we lived in a society that stopped seeing afflictions of our inner wounds as a sickness and started respecting the wholeness within us? What would happen if we added empathy to our prescription list?
In coaching, when I see a client locates the truth of who they really are, beyond fear and defense mechanisms, they gain this centered, calm, powerful presence. They gain stability. They experience fortitude. These human virtues that exist within them are activated.
What could happen if we shifted our overarching paradigm on "mental illness"? At worst, healing. At best, healing, personal growth and empowerment!