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Is Mental Pain Mental Illness?

Carrie Drake


Note: See Carrie's website:

The meaning of mental illness is controlled by a specialized group of people in medicine known as "psychiatrists". Psychiatry is still basically an art, not a science. It is the art of mystifying mental pain in competition with religion in order to justify its existence.

In medicine, there is a strong association between pain and illness, and diagnosing the illness is a relatively simply matter of tracking down the cause of the pain. Thomas Szasz and R.D. Laing both gained notority in the psychiatric establishment by claiming that psychiatry uses deception in qualifying mental pain and discomfort in the same empirical terms as doctors qualify physical pain as illness. Though both had different perspectives in their challenges to the deceptions of psychiatry, there is truth to their premise that remains silent only for a lack of a coherent voice of consensus.

The fact is that millions of people experience mental pain, and all mental pain requires compassion to solve the problems at the source of the pain. However, the presence of mental pain is not necessarily mental illness. It is good that society has an organized profession dedicated to caring for people who experience disabling degrees of mental pain, but it is bad that these care-givers must use deceptive pretexts for justifying their function, as it clouds the distinction between the social function of care-giving and the political function of indoctrinating. And it is extremely dangerous in an era of accelerating technological advances as the study of psychology increasingly blurs the border between the human brain and the computer.

The strongest voices of opposition to the deceptions of psychiatry come from the rather small movement of psychiatric survivors. But because this movement is small, undisciplined and deeply fragmented, any viable opposition to the deceptions of psychiatry must come from among the care-givers in that profession willing to go beyond where Laing and Szasz left off in validating their role as leaders as well as care-givers by redefining psychiatry in relation to a more realistic assessment of the cause of mental suffering. Effective leadership is not likely to come from within the psychiatric survivor movement independent of professionals because many of the psychiatric survivors still allow their pain to color their judgement and underestimate the role of objectivity that is so vital to building the discipline that is necessary to establish effective social unity and cohesion as a movement. Having experienced psychiatric abuse in addition to personal mental pain is very instructive. And it is a positive and rational step to seek to correct that abuse. However, those two qualifications, alone, do not provide the broad picture that is needed to establish a clear relationship between care-givers and the task of evaluating both the general and specific causes of mental pain.

Perhaps efforts to build an effective alternative to psychiatry as a system of care-giving for people suffer disabling degrees of mental pain have failed for lack of attention to all of the various social and cultural interpretations of the cause of mental pain. Individuals bring all of the belief systems of the general population to the psychiatric survivor movement, and any effort to to build an effective movement must include a disciplined effort to purge itself of the dualistic myths about the origin of mental pain. The most widely spread myth of the origin of mental pain is that mental pain has a mental cause, as if mental experience exists independent of the physical world. As such, individuals are made to feel that the mental pain is a result of their own failure rather than causes outside themselves. They might be led to believe that the origin of the pain is actually a mental illness, or a sin or a problem in their sexual identity, then seek out mental panaceas for their pains. Problems do not get solved like that without creating new problems, since mental experience is not its own cause, but an effect of the physical world. The problem is the cause of the pain in physical reality is buried beneath too many layers of metaphorical interpretation and abstruse jargon to find either a general or a specific physical source. To speak of mental pain in transcendent terms might help describe the pain, but a description of the pain doesn't explain how it got there. This was a mistake which prevented Laing from establishing a permanent opposition to the psychiatric establishing.

If we can build an opposition that uses discipline to ferret out myths about mental illness that linger from the general population, the psychiatric survivor movement will have achieved what the psychiatric establishment has failed to do, which is to liberate the sufferer from the authoritarianism which severely restricts the imagination of the general public. The public does not change through the mechanisms of democratic consensus-building, but through the economic authorities that affect their bank accounts. In the view of the public, individuals who are unable to care for themselves, economically, are thought to be either malingerers or "sick". So it is necessary to understand the error of the psychiatric myth of mental illness by understanding what this economic "sickness" is to the public.

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Updated 30 September 2007 - Contacts
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