Since this site has discussed the issue of mental illness before, I figure I would put forth a theory that has stuck in my mind of late. There is a very interesting radio guy I have listened to who strikes most people as a whacko named Roy Masters. His theory is that mental illnesses and demons are the same thing. That demons do exist as actual spiritual entities. That everyone gets them. And part of the salvation process is exorcising yourself of them through God and Jesus. (And he performs exorcisms.)
On the other hand, the hard-nosed, skeptically-minded scientific perspective teaches, accordingly, there is no evidence for god(s), devils, the soul, etc. Interestingly, this method also shows there is no such thing as “the mind” separate from “the brain.” And the brain, as it were, is provably a bag of chemicals.
So to speak of “the mind” in this sense is to speak of “the brain.” And the brain can get “sick,” something for which one needs to seek medical attention. The brain can get a tumor, have a stroke, get an infection from something like syphilis. If the brain does not provably have one of these conditions, i.e., something for which one would see a neurologist, then it is not “ill” in a scientific sense. In a sense that makes it appropriate for “medical doctors” to “cure” or “treat.” Like a doctor who might treat diabetes, cancer, heart disease as they do neurosyphilis, strokes, Alzheimer’s, etc.
In other words, if the brain is, for all we know, “physically healthy” then it’s not provably “ill” in the sense that the other “illnesses” for which we see medical doctors are. (There is a commenter at this site who claims brains with testosterone are not physically healthy. I’m going to ignore the point in part because I don’t understand it. Also I don’t want it to be a “red herring,” distracting from the argument.)
It may turn out that these “mental illnesses” are later discovered to be caused by physical damage to the brains. This is exactly what happened with neurosyphilis, where neurologists as opposed to psychiatrists now treat the condition. Schizophrenia may well be caused or at least triggered by a cat parasite.
This is the theory of the late psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, now currently notably endorsed by economist Bryan Caplan. I think philosopher Michel Foucault endorsed it too. The title to Szasz’s book is The Myth of Mental Illness.
This theory, properly understood, means “mental illnesses” are “myths” if they aren’t provably demonstrated to be “brain illnesses.” (Not unlike saying if you can’t prove God/the soul/demons exist according to the rigors of the scientific method, then they are “myths.”) And if they are demonstrated to be actual illnesses of the brain, then you should see a neurologist, not a psychiatrist. And psychiatry merges into neurology as a superfluous and unneeded discipline.
Whatever we might think of the theory, I note 1. Szasz and Caplan are brilliant and informed thinkers (Foucault was quite learned, though I think had a weakness in getting wrong the biological reality that leads to differences in human nature, instead arguing just about everything in human nature is a social construct; this is an error that neither Szasz nor Caplan make); and 2. more importantly, the theory is logically airtight. In fact, the great Karl Popper endorsed Szasz’s thesis on philosophical grounds.
But is it true? I guess it depends on what kind of truth we are talking about. When someone says something is a “myth,” it strikes many as though they had said, “Since these mental illnesses don’t exist, you can close down the asylums, throw some cold water in their face, give them a kick in the pants, and everything will be just fine.”
Now, I think that’s dead wrong as a sentiment. One reason why someone is likely to so bitterly reject the thesis as articulated by Szasz is their life experience with what has been called “mental illness.” However we categorize it, there is something seriously “off” involved. Szasz calls it a “life problem.” But that term can connote more trivial things like having to deal with a child who sasses back. No, someone who suffers from suicidal depression deals with a deadly serious life problem. As serious as a heart attack.
But their brains still aren’t provably “ill” in a scientific sense, and since there is no difference between minds and brains, their minds aren’t “ill” either. That is, “mental illnesses” still properly belong with “demons” according to this method. (There is a theory that suggests all “mental illnesses” will one day be proven to pass the Szasz test, where we discover things like the cat parasite that might cause or trigger some forms of schizophrenia applies to all scientifically real mental illnesses.)
Still, psychiatrists do good work in helping people with these either 1. mental illnesses or 2. life problems, however we want to categorize them. I don’t want to bury psychiatrists. I think the work they do, overall, is good. I do question whether much of it is in fact properly understood as an endeavor of medical science as opposed to a humanistic one.
One reason why it makes sense to keep psychiatry within the realm of medical science is that part of the good they do involves treating people with psychotropic drugs. And how those drugs affect the brain is a legitimate function of medical science. In libertarian utopia, all drugs would be legal for consenting adults and parents probably would be able to give drugs to their children. But we don’t live in that world.
Also, to the extent psychiatrists successfully treat people without drugs, the study of their progress is done according to the scientific method, rendering psychiatry into something more like a social science that helps individuals with life problems. (Except most other social scientists don’t get to prescribe drugs).
But I find it fascinating that, through the use of the scientific language and method, psychiatry that doesn’t involve prescribing drugs essentially repackages a humanistic philosophy that has been ongoing for thousands of years. Drug-less successful psychiatry has found basically that what the Stoics, Buddhists, and Eastern philosophers teach on how to deal with emotional well-being is accurate. (It’s also found within the Jewish and Christian traditions, if you know where to look.)
If I wanted to instruct people on these principles under the basis of “theology,” “philosophy,” or “self help” I could do this. I just need to be an MD in order to call it a “medical science” and write prescriptions.
(BTW, Roy Masters, featured above, at one point in his life practiced hypnotherapy and was arrested and served time in jail for practicing medicine without a license.)