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Saturday, September 17, 2005

What is an illness? (I)

Mrs Budak made a really interesting comment about my Van Gogh post:

'What exactly is mental "illness"? If a brain is somehow wired differently, can it be called an illness? Because of this different wiring, some mental illness sufferers are able to see the same things from a totally different dimension. Creativity can come from madness, it seems.'

Now, I personally believe that everybody has a brain that is wired in a totally unique way, and that we all have our little insanities. We all perceive the world in a different way from the next person.

'Mental illness' results only when the thoughts or beliefs of a person interferes with their lifestyle and from performing very basic functions - eating, sleeping, interacting with other people for example. That is, it's only an illness when the person in question isn't able to manage and are either a danger to themselves or to the people around them.

My Van Gogh, I believe, was doing quite well for himself in the battle against his personal demons...but then it all got too much for him. Looking at him, I don't think he had any sleep for four days and probably hadn't been eating. That is mental illness.

I think there are many people out there who manage to cope with a little madness, so to speak. Look at the artwork of artists like Salvadore Dali and Picasso - I'm not sure they were ever treated for a mental illness, but the sort of artwork they produce (pretty scary, don't you think?), the eccentric and bizarre behaviour they are reputed to have - well, they could almost be any of the patients I've met in the psychiatric unit.

Consider the nightmarish, horrific imagery of authors like Stephen King or Edgar Allen Poe, the histrionic popular Hollywood stars and their addictions.

"A Beautiful Mind" is one of the movies that comes to mind that illustrates how person differs from patient. The brilliant scientist with his idiosyncracies and his imaginary friends vs the confused and paranoid man. It was when his life began to fall to ruin that he was identified to have a mental illness.

Mental illness doesn't exist in someone who is able to cope with life and the pressures of the world. Mental illness is in the person who is broken, whose life has shattered, whose thoughts are splintered.

Engin Rosak, they say.

In other words, we don't fix it unless it's bust.


Anonymous j. said...

The legal definitions of criminal insanity are somewhat odd. Especially since diabetics and sleepwalkers can be classed as insane.

8:15 am  
Blogger wahj said...

There's an increasing tendency to "medicalise" things and treat them as disorders and sicknesses. While doing so gives recognition to the problem, and is helpful insofar as it highlights it, it moves into the medical realm (e.g. treat with drugs and chemicals) what used to be dealt with in the social realm (address with behavioural influences).

I'm sure most of the shamans, soothsayers and prophets of the past would've been diagnosed in our age as having some kind of mental disorder, and dosed with drugs and medicine. I'm not saying what people did with them in the past was any better (after all, societies were limited in their ways of coping because they didn't have access to the drugs and medicines we do now - and for every shaman they elevated to a position of respect, they burned a few witches as well) but it seems that we now tend to locate such "disorders" purely in the medical realm. We trust that everything is an issue of brain chemistry, and the appropriate injection of a certain chemical will restore the right balance.

I was also thinking of the increasing number of kids now labelled ADD in our schools. I don't think there's something in the water thats causing it, for example: it's just a case of children who in the past would've been labelled "incorrigible" and undisciplined now being recognised as having a disorder.

What I worry about is that once we medicalise a person and his/her problems, we assume that the only solution is medication, and ignore the fact that these problems are part social, part pyschological, part physiological.

Anyway, interesting post topic: thanks for bringing it up!

9:47 am  
Blogger tscd said...

j: I've seen some diabetics on and off medications - the personality change of delirium can be really amazing and frightening.

wahj: Hmm, I think your comment deserves a whole post.

9:55 pm  

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