When is it acceptable to be mentally ill? Throughout history people have had varying levels of acceptance and attitudes towards mental illness. During certain periods of history people were celebrated for having visions or talking with spirits. These hallucinations were interpreted as the mark of a genius or chosen one. Without their visions we may not have had great thinkers like Buddha or Shakespeare. But history has not always been so approving of hallucinations. There have been times when seeing things that were not there or talking to oneself was a sign of a witch or more recently a symptom of a mental illness, one which needs to be cured.
Modern society offers us a peaceful existence and in exchange we are obligated to follow some norms. For example, when we arrive at a stop sign we stop, when we pay the waitress we leave a tip, and when we see hallucinations we seek treatment. These rules are set in place for the good of society. When society is doing well, we reason, the people or individuals are also doing well. What is good for society is good for the individual.
While we should consider what is good for society–and we are obligated to bid by her rules–we are also faced with a moral dilemma. As individuals we have an obligation to ourselves to find our purpose and gain happiness. But as individuals in a society we are also obligated to fill a role and follow the norms.
When does the individual face this dilemma? Usually we are content with our pursuits and level of happiness all the while functioning well and obediently in society. But if an individual is doing all the above except seeking treatment for their mental illness they might feel unfaithful. Unfaithful to the societal norm that mental illness requires treatment.
If your mental illness isn’t putting others or yourself in danger and you are feeling well, do you need treatment?
Suppose you are questioning whether you have a mental illness or not. You notice some symptoms that are pointing to the possibility but you feel okay and you are not hurting anyone. Plus you would almost argue that your mental illness contributes to your happiness.
The kind of happiness I am describing is where all your senses are alive. Colors are vibrant, music stirs yours passions, and smells intoxicate you. There is purpose in what you are doing, an originality springs forth from your work. People around you are astonished at your energy and how your very appearance radiates with the happiness that you are experiencing.
People are noticing that you are happy, they do not notice that you may have a mental illness. What should you do?
Society would argue that you should seek treatment. She would point out that mental illness is a condition that can progress if not treated. It can cause people to hurt themselves or others. For example, depression can lead to suicide and delusional world perspectives can lead to school shootings. Diagnosing and treating mental illnesses, before they progress, helps to secure the safety of others in a society. If it is good for society, it is good for the individual.
But you might argue this one-sided perspective leads society towards the direction of a uniformed and mediocre group of individuals. Blunting the potential genius from making great strides in their discipline. The mentality that what is good for society is good for the individual has overthrown the individual.
Society might agree individuality is desired, but they would argue geniuses need not be insane. An insane person, especially if they thought they were a genius, can’t be trusted, and truthfully they can’t and shouldn’t trust themselves.
If you have discovered you are mentally ill, even if you are also the happiest ever, can you still trust yourself?
Lets consider an example of an insane genius, whose story is inspired by the main character of Chekhov’s dark short story The Black Monk. This man is nervous, he overworks and tries to find relief in the country. While visiting the country he discovers the freedom of being in nature, satisfaction with his work, and overall change in his state of mind. But one day he sees a hallucination of a phantom. The man is unsure he should tell anyone what he saw and keeps it to himself, and at this point also starts to consider his sanity.
The way I see it, this man has two options: (1) he can seek help because he is feeling unwell from his recent hallucination, and might end up harming others. Or (2) he can accept his symptoms because he feels just fine and is not harming anyone by seeing a hallucination.
Consider if he chooses option (2) and declares to himself, “If I feel well, and am not harming others, then hallucinations are not wrong to have.” Consequently, the man experiences heightened pleasures and sensory experiences, and he works with more zeal. He may even start to fall in love.
Now imagine one day, while sitting on a bench the man is visited by his phantom and they start to converse. After a lengthy dialogue, the man has been convinced he is a chosen one of god, and a genius.
He faces another moral dilemma: If I am talking to hallucinations, am I mad? He has two options: (1) he can believe that the appearance of audio and visual hallucinations are the result of his illness progressing, he is ill and must seek help immediately. Or (2) he can consider that his hallucinations are actually visions because he is a genius. Geniuses are known to have symptoms of insanity, and this man feels just fine, he can’t be mad.
Instead of seeking treatment, the man chooses option (2) and continues to live his life like before. Except his life continues to take on new zeal and purpose now that he believes to be a genius, visited by visions. There are no obstacles, everything happens for him, and he even chooses to suddenly propose to the woman that he loves.
Now before we go on, there is always some conditions attached to our choices, and being a genius does not guarantee your resistance to this fact. By choosing (2) this man has chosen to believe the following: If your hallucinations are visions, you are a genius and are not mad. Inadvertently he has created a situation where his faith in himself could be challenged, by doubt.
Self-doubt is dangerous, and people are cursed with this skeptic. In our imaginary man’s case, the skeptic in him would whisper in his ear, “You can’t trust yourself, you are not a genius, you are mad! Only a madman would go around thinking his hallucinations are visions.” Usually the skeptic grows from her culture’s foundational belief system. These deep rooted beliefs have been injected into every individual since birth to uphold the safety, stability, and future of a society.
Returning to the story of our man, consider how his society will perceive him if they discovered he was suffering from a mental illness. This is not hard to imagine, especially if we consider our modern perspective on mental illness. If he is experiencing hallucinations, he is insane, and as a consequence is a threat to the peace enjoyed by the masses.
And it is specifically because his society, and ours, regards mental illness as a treatable condition, it is a problem. If faced with the fact that his visions are possibly hallucinations caused by a mental disorder, our imaginary man’s faith is at risk, and one day will be tested.
Who better to test his faith than his wife, who he loves with all his heart, who brings joy and satisfaction to his life? One night she catches him talking to himself, as if he is talking to an imaginary person. The man can see she is terrified, and distraught, tears are streaming down her face, she is voicing her concern for her husband’s health.
What can the man do? He can (1) trust himself, staying true to his beliefs and his individuality. In doing so he will gain the incredible satisfaction of choosing his self and all the enjoyment resulting from that choice, but at the cost of detriment to his health, and losing his family, friends, and place in society. Losing the placid state of mind offered to the herd. Or (2) give into the skeptic, the doubt, lose his individuality to the pursuits of the herd, of society. He will gain the small blessings offered by society, like peace of mind and a healthy body, but the cost is paid from hard work and suffering at the hands of another, for the betterment of society.
Our man will choose (1).
He might end up losing a lot that society offers, might even become lonely and depressed, and ultimately regret his faith. But this is not a man who has faith. More realistically choosing his faith will result in the enrichment of the happiness he already possesses. Happiness is defined as a freedom of individuality, more highly esteemed than that which society offers. What could be more joyous than finding the happiness of self acceptance?
Returning to my initial question: When is insanity okay? If you feel well, and are not putting other people in danger, insanity is the force that empowers you to free the Individual within from the chains of society. Insanity is some people’s road to happiness.
What is your road to happiness?