I don’t understand mental illness

OK. So how do you understand mental illness? And how do we change things?— Terry Burridge (@Kleinrules) December 12, 2013

revised already, a couple of hours after posting

Terry, I’ve been to your blog and found something there I liked very much:

“All counsellors are not the same! If you want a flavour of how I work, please look at the pages headed Counselling.” 

I have also read the pages headed “Counselling”, and concluded that your way of working would not have been right for me. And I really appreciate your being so clear about how you work. Getting the right kind of help would be much easier if all therapists took that approach. 

And it is true what I wrote in the blog title: I do not understand the concept of mental illness. I do, though, have a very clear definition of mental health. This is translated from my Norwegian blog, and the list is a variation of Virginia Satir’s:

Mental health is knowing that people do not need to be hindered, polished, trained, pruned, enlightened, blocked and normalized in order to become useful citizens.

Mental health is knowing that, just as plants need light, water and nutrients to  grow to their full potential, basic needs must be filled so that the inborn health of humans can develop:

  • the need to take responsibility for our lives
  • the need to see and hear what is, instead of what ought to be
  • the need to feel what we feel, instead of what we ought to feel
  • the need to convey what we think and feel, instead of what we ought to think and feel
  • the need to be able to ask for what we want, instead of waiting to see if we get it – or asking for something we think we can get
  • the need to take chances instead of always playing it safe 

And, since people are not plants, it is never too late to begin the process of fulfilling these needs – and to see when our surroundings prevent us from fulfilling them.

The next paragraph is taken from this blog post:


In my belief system, isolation and bullshit is the main cause of mental health problems. Problems. Not illnesses. The short-short version is that the collective stories of our surroundings drown out the stories of individuals. Some people, the so-called normal ones, are able to adapt to the collective stories, and the so-called mentally ill ones are incapable of it, for many different reasons. And “mental illness” is in itself a powerful story of alienation, isolation, bullshit, disempowerment and hopelessness.

As I see it, we can change things by making it possible for people with mental problems to own their own stories. And their own lives. And that change begins with getting rid of the label of “mental illness”, because labelling is the most destructive force in the universe

Change begins when therapists know, to paraphrase Jung, that we can only help others as far as we have helped ourselves. 

And change begins when therapists say “we”. I would like to see this text as a poster everywhere that mental health care is provided: 

We have been allotted misleading maps 
and defective compasses early in life. 

Everyone has the right to draw their own map,
and find and trust the compass they were born with. 

No one is ‘mentally ill’, no one is ‘normal’, 
we have all reacted with natural defenses against societal harm. 

Many manage to hide their societal damage, 
and many forms of societal harm are so prevalent 
that they are considered normal. 

We have a right to grow out of our defenses,
become aware of what is happening 
in us and around us,
describe it in our own words,
evaluate and judge,
and take responsibility 
for our bodies and our lives.

These are my thoughts. And in my two previous posts I shared some tools that have helped me draw my own map, find my compass and take responsibility. They have been right for me, and that does not mean they are right for everyone. 


Circles of Connection

Rufus May asked some interesting questions on Twitter:

 The unfiltered story belongs somewhere else. Here I’ll begin with two circles and a bridge and a story that belongs to them:

I had a weird and wonderful discussion with a professor from Africa some years ago, that started when I said I was an atheist. He got really upset and insisted that I could not possibly be one, rather aggressively, I felt. And he refused to let go out the subject.

In the beginning it looked like one of those unbreachable canyons that suddenly can separate people from different cultural backgrounds, but both of us were genuinely interested in understanding the other’s point of view, and we talked on for a long time, looking for common ground … and I’m so glad we did, as we finally managed to bridge the canyon:

His was a culture of nature worship, and to him an “atheist” was someone who had cut himself off from all that grows and nurtures in the world – living in a mental Mordor, so to speak. And it had been a serious shock to hear me define myself as such a person.

So I was happy to finally reassure him: I could answer his “But you have to worship something! What do you worship?” by saying that I didn’t use that word, but I gathered energy from trees and rocks and hills and mountains, and that for me, feeling the rough bark of a tree, seeing how the tree is connected to a cycle of life, and knowing that I am also a part of that cycle … that is akin to a religious experience.

This meeting took place at an international translation congress, and both the professor and I knew about building bridges between concepts and cultures. That’s what translators do.

Our basic assumption, even when we were upset and annoyed, was that we had two separate stories about religion and atheism. The words created different images in our minds, but they were only different, neither was right or wrong. And we did not try to convince the other, but to build a platform where we could get a glimpse of the images of the other.

But both circles have to be willing to bridgebuild, one from each side. Sometimes that does not happen. Sometimes there is instead a situation of story invasion: 

A psychiatrist once insisted that his psychiatric story about my problems of living was “reality”. I replied that everyone has a right to tell their own story, and no one has the right to invade the stories of others. And I refused to let him invade my story. 

When I rejected the psychiatric story, a medical story of borderline psychosis invaded and colonized my story so thoroughly that I could only take responsibility for my physical and mental health by staying away from the Health Services for many years. 
The current HS story is “Let’s pretend it never really happened”. My HS story is that we cannot change people or institutions that invade and colonize, but we can defend ourselves by seeing and evaluating what they do. 

We can be aware of the invasive circle, and move out of it … if that is possible … and I deeply realize how lucky I was to be able to do so when I needed to. And we can connect with others who also see stories of story invasion, to counteract the crippling and pervasive story of “Everything is OK, it’s just your reactions that are wrong”.

My third circle story is the story of my life with Partner, whom I met 44 years ago. Right now we are surfing into old age on a tide wave of fun and creativity, and we’re busy enjoying it while it lasts. We know that things change. We have had great times, horrible times, and grungy years when we lived like strangers in insulated bubbles, and we have always managed to find our way back to this:

We have an area of overlapping stories, of togetherness, sharing, common memories, common interests. 

And each of us has areas of interest, thinking, experience that the other cannot or will not share – and that is OK.

And the most painful – and liberating – realization has been that some of our stories from the grungy and the awful years are incompatible. Human memory being what it is, we cannot find common ground there, so we made a mutual decision: to place the differences in our individual spaces and concentrate on what we share on common ground. 

Works for us.

Those are my stories. I now pass the questions on to you:

How do we reconcile with each other when we have conflict?

What happens when somebody else has a different story to ours, how can we meet each other and learn from each other?

A psychiatrist on letting go of knowledge and power:

Psychiatrist Blows The Lid On Antidepressants   

By Jon Rappoport  


Q: The expert.  
A: Yes. That’s a powerful feeling. People come to you    with questions and you have the answers. If you don’t, then you’re thrown    down in the pit with everyone else. Part of being a doctor is being above    the pit, out of the problem. You’re the solution. You don’t want to fall. And the only thing that keeps you from falling is what you’ve learned. Your knowledge. When you see that that’s based on lies, you don’t know    what to do. It’s like being a priest and realizing that everyone gets to    the far shore by his own means. You don’t want to let go of the doctrine that put you on the pulpit.  
Q: So what would a new paradigm look like?  
A: For mental health? We have to get rid of all the old    classsifications and disorders. We have to let all that sink into oblivion.    That was wrong. That was largely fantasy.  
Q: It was a story.  
A: We told it, and now we have to stop telling it. Because    we’ve ended up intervening in people’s lives in a very pernicious way.  
Q: Part of the story necessitated that kind of intervention.  
A: Yes. And, not to take myself off the hook, but people    want that kind of story, as you say. They want that “expert story.”    They want someone else to come in and tell them what to do and what to    think and what drug to take.  
Q: Why do you think that is?  
A: Because people have taken the easy path. They have    opted for what I would call a flat version of reality. If they started    adding dimensions on their own—  
Q: They would be forced to tell their own story.  
A: In the terms you’re using, yes. That’s what would    happen.  
Q: And how would society look then?  
A: Much different. Much more risky, perhaps, but much    more alive. Psychology and psychiatry don’t allow for that kind of outcome.    All mental disorders are constructs. They’re named by committees, as I’m    sure you know. They’re a form of centralized pattern. In this context,    the word “shrink” is very appropriate. That’s what we’ve been    doing. Shrinking down the perception of what reality and the mind are all    about.    


On Smarm


Tom Scocca writes:

What is smarm, exactly? Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.

Smarm would rather talk about anything other than smarm. Why, smarm asks, can’t everyone just be nicer?

Bullshit, Frankfurt wrote, was defined by the bullshitter’s indifference to truth:

“The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides…is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it.”

“The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.”

Smarm should be understood as a type of bullshit, then—it expresses one agenda, while actually pursuing a different one. It is a kind of moral and ethical misdirection. Its genuine purposes lie beneath the greased-over surface.