Of Mental Illnesses and Brontosauruses...

We are in the midst of an existential crisis!

We are in the midst of an existential crisis!

Did you know that the brontosaurus never existed? That it was a fabrication manifested because of a race to discovery (dubbed "the bone wars") that took place between two prominent paleontologists in the 19th century?

Although scientists have known since the 1970's that what was called the skeleton of a brontosaurus was, in fact, an apatosaurus skeleton topped with the head of another dinosaur, our culture has held tight to the fascinating and beautiful story of our beloved bronty, and to this day has celebrated its existence in both popular culture as well as children's educational materials. It's as though our nostalgic love for this mythical beast has taken on more cultural power than the science of paleontology. Talk about the benefits of inventing something and passing it off as science! 

In reading about this intriguing phenomenon, my mind gravitated toward another current event that hits closer to home and has the potential to affect many individuals in the coming years; the publication of the DSM-V (the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, widely considered the definitive "truth" in the diagnosis and classification of mental health issues in the United States) and its inclusion of several problematic "disorders". 

The field of psychology has long struggled with the problem of how to define the notion of mental health disorders without allowing subjective cultural belief systems to taint or characterize what is considered "disordered". An example of this struggle was the DSM-II classification of homosexuality as a mental health disorder and its subsequent deletion after considerable protest, discussion and argument between the APA and gay rights' organizations.

It seems that the ideas that we hold about mental illness in our culture are very difficult to define using the scientific method. Much like the fabled brontosaurus, mental health diagnoses have the potential to be theorized and popularized without much scientific foundation, and thusly, without warrant, to take on a cultural power of their own. The difference is that this power does not only manifest a cute-looking vegetarian creature in our children's  sandboxes or textbooks; the power of the myth of mental illness is that it can target individuals who do not "fit" into the dominant paradigm, label them with a disease, and promote the medication of these individuals.

Let me clarify that there are mental health disorders that most definitely warrant the use of diagnosis and of psychotropic medication to manage the symptoms; I also believe that if an individual feels as though diagnosis and/or medication helps them to be more functional in their life then I stand by they and their psychiatrist's use of those tools. My concern with the development of these new mental health disorders is that some of what was once considered a "normative" part of being human (ex. bereavement, toddler tantrums, hormonal shifts during menstruation) could now be treated as abnormal. Naming that abnormality has power, and can affect the individual who will now be considered "disordered". Additionally, the development and marketing of numerous new psychotropic medications has created an entity that can now benefit financially from these diagnoses. 

Assigning language (a name, a definition) to something can have the effect of making us feel as though we have more control over it; that we fully understand and can sublimate that entity. A more beautiful aspect of that experience is that we as humans can find community in naming something and in feeling less alone facing a problem that has complicated our lives by helping us find other people experiencing the same thing. However more and more, "the bones" of psychology seem to be mismatched with each other. Revisionist science is developing "disorders" to fit the medications that companies have invented; human issues that once caused us to build communities of support and prompted genuine curiosity and empathy for the sufferer are now becoming very individual experiences that can be wrapped up within simple descriptions and medicated. 

I'm curious about how people of the future will consider what we now call "psychology". Will it appear as the slap-dash brontosaurus skeleton now appears to modern paleontologists? Thrown together in such a manner as to benefit the various individuals who "discovered" or developed it? Will these disorders be manifested, defined and braided into the dominant culture to such a degree that even after their debunking they continue to affect many individuals scarred by their indelible mark? How can we as therapists and as individuals salvage the wonderful benefits of psychology without ascribing to the doctrine of a science that is struggling to define itself?