Western Medicine and Mental Health

In today’s world, psychological ailments, especially anxiety and depression, are interpreted in highly negative ways. This is true among both mental health “experts” and the general public alike. They’re perceived as afflictions best avoided or, assuming they make an unfortunate appearance in our lives, to be rid of as quickly, as effortlessly, and as painlessly as possible.

The “professional” approach to treating these psychological “disorders” typically involves some combination of counseling and medication – or even just medicine – the latter of which significantly alters the patient’s brain chemistry in ways that make them happier and more productive.. Pharmaceuticals aim to restore our ability to cope effectively in a stressful world, and can apparently be quite effective in that.

But what if we’ve misinterpreted what these purported afflictions are communicating to us at a deep existential-ontological level? What if they potentially serve a positive role in our lives, disclosing certain things about our world and ourselves – the two are in fact inextricably linked – which allow us to become more attuned to our true selves, and thus more fully human? And if this position is correct, then shouldn’t we challenge a paradigm which portrays them as abnormalities from a “normal” condition, to be controlled or eliminated?

These powerful psychological conditions can indeed be debilitating to those dealing with them. This is not an attempt to trivialize them or dismiss their severity. I have firsthand experience of how traumatic they can be, and of how radically life-altering they oftentimes are. So there’s definitely a place for Western medicine here. The main issue, however, is with a general unwillingness to allow them to serve as occasions for digging deeper into our lives, into our identities as thinking, feeling, radically finite and transcendent/receptive beings who are more than complex biological organisms.

As citizens of a globalized and technologically-driven world, we’re thrown into a fast-paced civilization predicated on a cluster of implicit values and ideals which guide our thoughts and behaviors and are generally taken for granted. We become cogs within a larger socio-historical framework and subservient to a calculative understanding of beings – as exploitable resources – where production, consumption, efficiency, and related concepts set the standard.

Within this ontological horizon of frenzied but largely pointless activity in which we now “live and move and have our being,” come attendant symptoms of social, political, and economic disorientation which intimate an increase in our individual and collective despair. To mask the pain of our situation we many of us fall into drug use, endless distractions, an excessive pursuit of sensual pleasures (most obviously copious amounts of sex devoid of any deeper emotional or spiritual connection), or some combination of these and other things.

While a condition like anxiety could very well cut across historical epochs,as something associated with the inherent finitude and fragility of our lives – not to mention cross-historical and cross-cultural things like childhood abuse or abandonment – it’s also very likely that its ubiquity and intensity has significantly increased in our postmodern world. Whereas in previous eras the lives of individuals were felt to be more connected to the family, to the tribe, to the community, to nature, and especially to God, these traditional bulwarks against mental illness are now largely absent.

Those intimate connections now largely uprooted, we’re cast adrift all alone towards death in a sea of ultimate meaninglessness. For those who have the courage to face this situation squarely the response could quite easily end in feelings of panic, anxiety, and depression. These are actually reasonable dispositions towards such a precarious and alienating predicament, and far from being atypical or abnormal they should instead be viewed as humane responses to an inhuman world.

But it need not end there: What if these phenomena disclose our collective affliction in ways that may precipitate a change in the way we think and respond to our world, or, more specifically, to our being-in-the-world? If we stay with the feelings of pain and suffering for a bit and reflect upon their possible causes, then this recognition could ultimately lead to a radically new way of thinking and being. There are many positive aspects of these perceived ailments which include both practical and also more spiritually significant elements.

To repeat, there’s definitely a place for Western medicine and psychology within even the best possible world – being alive is inherently mysterious and risky – but right now it seems as though we far rely too heavily on their ability to help us cope within a dehumanized world rather than inspiring us to change the conditions of that world.

As the old saying goes, in order to change the world we must begin by changing ourselves. The opportunity to do so is enabled through anxiety and depression, and we must learn to recognize and then respond to the deeper existential-ontological implications revealed in these supposed mental illnesses.

The ancient Greek sage Heraclitus observed that “sickness makes health sweet.” In that spirit of regeneration we should be more welcoming to forms of emotional pain and suffering associated with these psychological phenomena, not as ends in themselves but as a means to personal authenticity, to genuine growth and flourishing.

An essential part of what it means to be human is being lost through the continued misdiagnosis and over-prescription of powerful, mind-altering drugs. Our goal here, as always, is to to challenge the guiding presuppositions holding sway in today’s global, consumerist configuration of power, values, and ideals. Medication should be used as  last resort in extreme cases of debilitation, and not as a permanent solution to much larger and deeper cultural/spiritual issues.

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