(a guest post by jason)
Out here on the streets, it’s disconcerting how casually everyone throws around psychological lingo to explain people’s erratic behavior. And I mean, everyone, social workers, other street people, the general public, the courts, pop & not-so-pop culture, etc. The depressives, anxious, manic, various addictions, OCD, ADD, ADHD, oppositional-defiant, schizophrenic, etc. are in the socio-economic state they are in because of their “illness.” Rarely is even the simple question of a causal relationship asked: which comes first: mental health issues or homelessness? Rarely also is the ubiquity of “mental illness” used as a gauge of society as a whole.
This is weaponized discourse whose purpose is solely to preclude sympathy with those exhibiting deviant behavior. The language of mental illness is designed & intended to foreclose on understanding of or sympathy with the social relations & personal, often highly traumatic, histories of transgressive individuals. There is no analytical insight to be gained by waving the magic wand of mental health discourse over deviance; it is sheerest, simplistic dismissal of people’s actual, concrete experience in exchange for the clinical, controllable, prescribable language of brain chemistry. This language also allows people of a certain class to assume, based on their high taxes, the silly notion of the availability of social services to the indigent. The rampant abuse & outright cruelty of social agencies, the bureaucratic nightmares of delay, constant repetition of actions like filling out paperwork, the unending wait for mostly inadequate services, esp. on the medical side, harassment by police & other authorities, the absurdly arbitrary nature of rules to be kept in order to receive services, etc., etc. are, like other aspects of social reality & personal history, flippantly dismissed. That there is no lack of housing, food, medical care or money in this society is also irrelevant.
That deviant behavior may be an expression of an authentic & legitimate desire to REBEL is likewise not worthy of consideration. This, to me, is surprising given the vision on offer for a person trying to transition out of homelessness, addiction, etc. is usually uninspiring, to say the least. Shall we learn how to balance checkbooks & treat our emotional lives like a spreadsheet so we can…get a job at Target? yes, that’s the goal, usually so that one is not dependent on others, the greatest crime one can commit: the slave not fully committing his back to row the good ship Capitalism.
and what about the autistic, the mentally retarded, and others w/varying physical disabilities? the elderly? children & their mothers? veterans? It’s perhaps a bit easier to see with veterans that their limited usefulness to capital has now rendered them disposable, except as PR props, which, to a degree, the Veteran Admin itself is, a marketing gimmick (the VA, like other medical social services, is the way the gov’t controls the health care market, ensuring profitability for insurers and medical equipment providers while maintaining a fig leaf of care for its “war fighters.” of course, medical experimentation is also rampant in the VA.) the “highest service” to one’s country makes one fit for the trash heap. The example of the vet & his treatment at the hands of the state should be taken as exemplary of the entire system.
and so the desire to rebel must be encouraged. the most dispiriting part of my experience being on the streets here is the belief of “normal” people that what street people need is “normal, healthy, functional” reintegration into “mainstream” (middle class) society, or at least to embrace middle class values (like shopping vs. 5 finger discounts, filling out the timesheet correctly, being a general do goody Wally Cleaver punctual, cheerful, presentable boy scout or campfire girl.) the vision is so dull, uninspiring, and pointless that perhaps people’s “mentally ill” fantasies are rightfully more appealing. what does flipping burgers at the jackass in the box have to compare w/a really solid heroin addiction or having a “drunk to astonish the druidy Druids” (Buck Mulligan)? or belief that one is Walt Disney’s heir? Assuming there were better social services available, why would (or should) one access them just so they can get a job at Wal Mart? And the churches…mostly they are there to offer a shot of Jesus Red Bull, and/or often enough the threat of hellfire, to give that boost to the struggling, the sloganeering that says people really can make it after all if they just try hard enough & believe enough in their own belief.
And so in reality, the language of mental illness both adopts the mantle of & somewhat replaces the more moralistic language found in the past about the plight of the poor. (e.g., see today’s lazy, shiftless schizophrenics.) the moralizing of the past is now put on a “scientific” basis. But you still have to want Big Brother to help you, to return to his loving breast, you have to want to get better, have the will for mental wholeness. Morality & psychiatry here are kissing siblings. Not surprising, since they are both deployed in the service of state capitalism.
But beside its utility to the State, beyond mooing along w/the rest of the herd, why do individuals gulp down & spew out this language so thoughtlessly? For the managerial class of our society and its functionaries & aspiring members, the language of mental illness does two things: 1) masks the deep well of resentment middle class people feel at the enormous & usually arbitrary & meaningless hurdles they underwent & undergo to procure & maintain that flimsy buffer against the world that comes from being middle class; 2) masks the reality that like cancer, like Tom Jones’ falling in love, it’s not unusual, it can happen to anyone, it happens all the time. There is plenty of correlational evidence about what causes “mental illness,” esp. psychological trauma, but causal evidence is harder to pin down. This is itself irksome & angst-inducing, this mysterious & perhaps inexplicable menace to each & all’s psyche. The bane of every psychiatrist is Polonius’s “what is to define madness but to be mad?” We all take some comfort in clinical language about other people’s illnesses, the more scientifically obfuscatory the more authoritative sounding. The words of experts are soothing. But the same language often fails when applied to our own illnesses as we realize the boundary between “health” & “illness” is vague & easily penetrated and these expert words by themselves mean almost nothing. “We know what we are, we know not what we may be,” as Ophelia said. Clinical language cannot give one the motivation & desire to live, no matter how full of positivity & possibility it may be, for we can never know what we may be.
‘Puberty’ by Edvard Munch
“Without a vision the people perish” -Proverbs 28:19 (in god’s own King James English)
Ending on a question: what is a positive vision that’s an alternative to the capitalist mental health industry? On a macro scale, people around this here internet briar patch have great ideas & know a lot. but what about on a more micro scale? The neo-Freudian Jacques Lacan used the image of the Möbius strip to analogize the mental operations of certain mentally ill persons. I hope to discuss this more with some suggestions for how to break the strip or at least disrupt its ceaselessly circling, yet very limited flow.