Friday, May 14, 2010

What is “Mental Illness?”

Before you jump to the conclusion that you are mentally ill and that your painful, crippling symptomology means that you’re more screwed up than others, consider another perspective. What if we all – and that includes those who are deemed psychologically “healthy” – have psychological tumors that are every bit as lethal as the physical varieties? For one thing, oodles of studies reveal that we do have them – tumors of self-delusion. (11/9/05; Self-images Often Erroneously Inflated) reports:

“In one study of nearly a million high school seniors, 70 percent said they had 'above average leadership skills, but only 2 percent felt their leadership skills were below average.' Another study found that 94 percent of college professors think they do above average work. And in another study, ‘when doctors diagnosed their patients as having pneumonia, predictions made with 88 percent confidence turned out to be right only 20 percent of the time.’”

Confidence can empower, but I’d prefer accuracy over delusions of grandeur, especially from my physician. Such delusions also impose serious obstacles to meaningful relationships. Ever try communicating with someone self-deluded into thinking they’re Julius Caesar? Not much basis for real dialogue! Or let’s just take the garden variety high school senior who thinks they are the next Winston Churchill in terms of leadership ability. It’s not hard to envision relational conflicts.

Surprisingly, those who are experiencing mild depression or the results of a trauma do not readily host this nasty tumor. Shelley Taylor (Positive Illusions) writes,

“Normal people exaggerate how competent and well liked they are. Depressed people do not. Normal people remember their past behavior with a rosy glow. Depressed people are more even-handed…On virtually every point on which normal people show enhanced self-regard, illusions of control, and unrealistic visions of the future, depressed people fail to show the same biases.” (p.214)

Perhaps pain isn’t so bad? Perhaps it’s even necessary! Sadly, once the psychological torment passes, these aggressive tumors return. Taylor confesses,

“When depressed people are no longer depressed, they show the same self-enhancing biases and illusions as non-depressed people.” (p.223)

Perhaps suffering is a bridle restraining our galloping egotism? Perhaps also we might regard our emotional/mental symptomology as an opportunity for growth and maturity! No one complains when a successful cancer surgery causes pain. We accept the necessity of pain because of the potential benefits.

But surgeries are invasive and can also disfigure, as can our symptomology. How can we live with our disfigurements, failures, and weaknesses? I’ve found that this is only possible by knowing that I have a Savior who can take my blemishes and turn them into beauty marks – a Lover who is not repulsed by my “ugliness,” but instead is drawn by it:

• “The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
(Psalm 34:17-18)

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