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Thursday, June 10, 2010

 

Crazy writers?

In my time as an editor, freelancer and person that people try to show things to*, I've seen a lot of amateur writing. I've also read plenty of reviews and discussions of books, and there's a comment that comes up not infrequently when discussing bad work:

I wonder if this writer is mentally ill?

A writer whose main character is relentlessly Mary Sue-ish gets accused of narcissistic personality disorder; a writer who shows no compassion for their characters gets accused of sociopathy; a writer who creates a bizarrely hostile world gets accused of paranoid schizophrenia, and so on.

Is this a legitimate thing to do? Well, sometimes, perhaps. But there's a line to draw.

The first principle is a common sense one: some mental disorders are uncommon. The statistical likelihood of anyone having a rare disorder is low. Writing talent is also statistically uncommon, so put together the odds of having a rare mental disorder and a rare level of literary ability, and you're looking at some long odds. Most mental disorders are also disabling to varying degrees, while writing requires an ability to sustain concentration, plan for the future and keep one's thoughts in order, so a really serious mental illness is very unlikely. Antonia White might have written about her experiences in Bethlem Hospital later on, but while she was in there she couldn't do very much beyond rave and struggle.

Some mental disorders, of course, are extremely common, depression being at the top of the list. Plenty of writers have experience of depression, because plenty of people have experience of depression - besides which, writing tends to be a high-stress and low-income profession where you have limited control over your fate, all of which can exacerbate any natural depressive tendencies: strain someone's nerves, and sometimes they break. Wonder whether a writer has been depressed and you may well be on solid ground - and indeed, depression involves certain mental habits that can become very familiar once you've experienced them close up. Stephen Fry showed tremendous personal courage in outing himself as a sufferer of bipolar disorder, but, with no disrespect to him as a writer, I could have guessed he'd suffered some kind of depressive illness just from reading The Stars' Tennis Balls. Couldn't necessarily have identified the manic part, but the basic depressive disorder? I'd have been pretty sure.

It tends not to be depression that writers get accused of - because mental illness usually is an accusation in these contexts; the question is generally, 'What on earth is wrong with this person to write such terrible books?!' Asking the question, in fact, tends to be a sign of two things: first, the asker is absolutely out of patience with the writer, and second, the asker is unlikely to have suffered from, or been close to someone suffering from, an actual mental illness. Speculating about a writer's psychology can make reading all the more interesting, but having seen mental illness up close I'm very much of the opinion that it's not a concept one should chuck about as a way of expressing contempt for someone's failings - and people who've seen the damage it can wreak are generally more cautious, and more compassionate, about wondering whether somebody has it.

These considerations aside, there's also another reason why it can lead you astray to wonder what made a writer crazy enough to write such rubbish. It's this, which I propose as Whitfield's Rule of Sanity:

Below a certain standard in a work of fiction, it can be difficult to distinguish lack of talent from lack of sanity.

The way it works is this. A writer creates a fictional world; even if it is governed by all the same laws of science, history and society that govern the real one, their world is created entirely by the words of their story and entirely made-up. There is no reality in a fictional world except whatever illusions of reality the author can conjure. A story isn't reality: it's a facsimile of reality.

How accurate a facsimile that is depends on the talent of the author.

And here's the thing about mental illnesses: though they vary widely, what most of them have in common is that they tend to create, in the sufferer, an inaccurate view of reality.

We draw our conclusions, but mental illness gums up the works. It's correct that MI5 exists; it's incorrect to conclude that they're spying on you as you go about your daily chores. It's correct that we live in a society that values thin women; it's incorrect to conclude that you're grossly ugly when your weight rises above seven stone. Even with the 'common cold of psychiatry', depression, it may be correct that you forgot an item on the shopping list but it's incorrect to conclude that you're a contemptible person who can't even get the simplest thing right. (You'll note that all these conclusions are painful and frightening ones. Mental illness hurts like hell.) The ideas are there, but they don't actually link up by any process that would convince a neutral bystander. The conclusions are not supported by the evidence.

Now consider the work of a really bad writer. Unless you've worked in publishing and read the slush pile, it's possible you've never encountered the work of a really bad writer, because trust me, even the worst dreck that sees publication is far above the standard of the average slush pile submission. But picture a bad book, anyway. What's it like? We're told that the villain hates the hero, but we're not given any reason why this might be the case. We're told that the heroine is extremely charming, but based on how she behaves in every interaction, this does not seem to be the correct interpretation of her behaviour. We're told that everybody in the world is a no-good snake, but why we're supposed to accept this is something of a mystery. In short, what the book asks us to accept is not supported by the evidence.

What we're looking at, in fact, is a book suffering the same frailties of connection that one encounters in an afflicted mind: a book that is ill. It doesn't perceive reality accurately. The world in it is lopsided. To see as the book sees, one would have to be out of one's mind.

But does this mean that the author is insane? Well, ask yourself this: if an inept draftsman creates a picture of a man whose head is too small and whose right hand is half the length it should be, does that mean the draftsman actually believes we live in a world full of tiny-headed, bob-handed people? No; all it means is that the draftsman isn't very good at reproducing the reality he or she sees. And the same attains to writing. Writing is pretty difficult, reality is massively complicated, and even a moderately accurate reproduction of it is hard to manage. Get it wrong, and you've created a weird facsimile of reality that sounds, well, crazy.

Human beings are, after all, highly attuned to perceiving reality - one reason why it's so devastating when something afflicts our perception of it - and particularly attuned to other human beings. The well-known 'uncanny valley' effect is an example of this: present us with a face that looks almost exactly like a human one but not quite, and we don't feel mildly sceptical: we feel a primal, visceral recoil: we feel afraid. We judge faked reality with an extremely precise eye, and we react very badly when it seems wrong. When approximating reality in fiction, a writer is up against an intense and deep-rooted instinct to identify and reject the false. 'Nobody talks like that'; 'People don't act that way'; 'That's not how someone would think': these are the basic recognition responses of a reader whose eye to reality is always assessing as well as responsive. It's amazing anyone gets past it.

The reason we do is probably that we're also a species heavily dependent on the use of language. Anyone who says anything is creating some kind of facsimile of reality: 'There are antelope to the west' is a sentence, not a herd of antelope, and if we freaked out too badly about the disparity between the word and the thing we'd have all starved to death millenia ago. A degree of simplification, a degree of stylisation: we have a natural tolerance for these - which is probably why, in turn, we're more prepared to accept implausible realities from a writer whose language and world is stylised, because we know to adapt our expectations. The world of Robert E. Howard or Samuel Beckett is a pretty far cry from the one we inhabit, but they manage in their different ways to keep us far away from literal likeness that we aren't too disturbed. And there are lots of ways to do it. Howard uses rhythm and rhetoric; Beckett uses starkness and simplicity. Other writers find their own ways. But if an Alan Bennett character suddenly looked up from his teacup and started talking like Lucky or Conan, we'd get a pretty big shock.

There are limits to what our brains will tolerate, though. And those limits are pretty harsh. Aesthetics are a fairly big element of it: a crude facsimile of reality will fly as long as it remains consistent with itself and pleasing to the ear - but let it lose any of that elegantly cadenced use of language and you wind up with The Eye of Argon or any of the goshawful post-Beckett student plays I had to sit through as an undergraduate. We like pretty patterns, in language as well as in design, and will accept a great deal more from a pretty paragraph than we will from an ugly one.

And the further we get from stylisation, the more reality the human mind needs in order to find the creation acceptable. Stylised language being a rare skill even among passable writers - it's much easier to put together a workaday sentence than a poetic one - most people need to be able to present a pretty darn plausible approximation of how people think, speak and act if they're going to get away with it.

And if they don't, the uncanny valley kicks in. What in the visual we'd call creepy, in the literary we call crazy.

Well, we're none of us perfect, and certainly none of us have as much talent as we could wish. But as mental illness is already overburdened with a horrible load of stigma and misunderstanding, which in turns leads to actual sufferers going misdiagnosed or undiagnosed, getting judged by the ignorant, rejected, unsupported, sometimes outright harassed, and all-around kicked when they're down, it's best not to add to the grim weight of disinformation that's already out there. Which means that unless you've got some sound, experience-based understanding and good evidence, it's usually best not to go around calling people crazy - certainly not just on the basis of bad behaviour or bad writing. They're probably just a rotten person or a rotten writer. It happens.



*Since getting published I've had to make a general rule that I don't look at the work of strangers. There are a lot of reasons for this, time being a big one, but there's also the fact that statistically speaking, more stuff is bad than good, and nobody wants to hear 'Your stuff is bad' from a writer whose books they like.

Comments:
Writing talent is also statistically uncommon, so put together the odds of having a rare mental disorder and a rare level of literary ability, and you're looking at some long odds.

Sorry, but I have to nitpick here. Assuming for a moment that the two are not related, the odds dont quite work like that. Given the fact that someone is a writer, the probability of them being mentally unwell is no different than for anyone else in the population.
 
Really? Aren't the odds of having two uncommon conditions higher than the odds of having just one uncommon condition? (Especially when one of the conditions is likely to be disabling?)
 
@Donalbain: BUT the likelihood of them being BOTH a writer and suffering from a mental disorder are significantly less less than the odds of them being just a writer or just a sufferer from a mental disorder.

If, for example, 1% of the population suffers from mental illness (given that there is no correlation between mental illness and writing ability) AND (given that writing ability is smoothly distributed across the population) if 1% of the population in general has writing ability then the percentage of those who have both writing ability and suffer from mental illness is 1% of 1%.

In other words:
Writers are no more likely to have a mental illness than are other members of the population.

However, if there is no correlation between writing and mental illness writers will suffer from it at the same rate as do nonwriters.

So, the likelihood of any writer having a mental illness is no different than the likelihood of anyone else.

However, the likelihood of any person being a writer is low and so the likelihood of any person being a writer AND having a mental illness is even lower.
 
Kit -- another great essay. I was struck by a thought as I read this section.

Asking the question, in fact, tends to be a sign of two things: first, the asker is absolutely out of patience with the writer, and second, the asker is unlikely to have suffered from, or been close to someone suffering from, an actual mental illness.

As you know from our conversations on other blogs I have been close to several people who have been diagnosed with severe mental illnesses. I wonder how many people know someone who is suffering from actual mental illness and is unaware of it? [Rather like the question of how many people actually do know men who batter their wives or closeted gays--without being aware of it.]

I have a feeling that many of the people who are quite willing to lodge the accusation of mental illness at particular writers are themselves unaware of the real mental illnesses they are encountering in everyday life. This is due, in part, to the incorrect image mental illness one constantly encounters in the media. If you watch Law & Order you would think that violent paranoid Schizophrenia was the most common form of mental illness.

My own experience with people who actually did suffer from mental illnesses was that they experienced and reacted to a world that was not quite like my own. Sometimes these differences were subtle, sometimes they were hard to see because their main effect was on the sufferer not those around them but they were slight diversions from reality. And, as you say, the ability to create a properly functioning universe is one of the signs of a bad writer.

The frustrating thing for me was when I was in a circumstance (like yours with Fry) when I was almost certain that people I knew were seriously suffering from mental illness and no one else took it seriously until the person had a psychotic break, attempted to commit suicide or became catatonic.
 
Answer split for length reasons:

I wonder how many people know someone who is suffering from actual mental illness and is unaware of it?

As with gay people, I'd be prepared to bet the answer was 'a whooooole bunch'. Probably more than with gay people, given that depression alone is, I think, statistically commoner than homosexuality.

Of course, a big proportion of those sufferers might not be aware that they're sick, because we're woefully under-educated about it - like you say, people generally only start getting informed when they run smack into it - plus it's a kind of disease that is, by its nature, hard to self-diagnose anyway.

Which makes it even more likely that your theoretical average person has known someone who's at least somewhat sick, but hasn't correctly identified the problem. I did. In the interests of people's privacy I won't give details, but I can remember one occasions some years ago, before I really knew much about mental illness, where I encountered someone who in retrospect I'm absolutely certain was suffering from undiagnosed depression.

At the time, all I could identify about them was that they were hostile, disagreeable and, it seemed, kind of wilfully unhappy and creating problems for themselves wherever they went. They were these things to such an extreme and puzzling degree that I wound up unable to dislike them, even though they were pretty unpleasant to me - my only real feeling towards them was a desire never to be in their company again - so on some level I think I knew they couldn't be judged by 'normal' standards, but at the time I just didn't know what to make of it, and neither did anyone else. The words used tended to be words like 'weird' and 'paranoid'. Even 'crazy', I think - but the word was used colloquially rather than seriously. 'Crazy' wasn't considered something that needed help.

And yeah, in retrospect their behaviour screams 'depression' and 'person who needs help', but nobody thought so at the time. They weren't self-harming or making suicide attempts or weeping all over the place (mostly they were picking fights and brooding), so it just didn't occur to anyone. The assumption, I think, was that they couldn't be really crazy, because that doesn't happen to people you know.
 
So I think you're right: I was someone who'd known a mental illness sufferer long before I realised that's what I was. I didn't love this person or feel any responsibility to them, so there was no motivation to enquire into their behaviour beyond the question 'How can I break off contact with you?' I hope they've had help since, but they didn't get any at the time because nobody was thinking that way.

And I'd bet that happens to a lot of people: they know someone sick, but they don't have the motivations or knowledge. I'm only going from my own experience, but it's my theory that there are two basic motivations that lead to identifying someone as ill:

1. You love the person, know there's a more reasonable self in there somewhere, and so are sure there must be something wrong.

2. You've encountered mental illness before, you know it's an evil, vicious thing, and you're buggered if you'll stand by while it tears up somebody else.

But both of these involve having some sense that the sufferer is on your side - or at least, that you're on theirs - and mental illness is the enemy. To someone who hasn't gotten involved in that fight, mental illness is a kind of Otherness that's about the sufferer rather than the disease. Calling someone 'mentally ill' in those circumstances is generally an insult rather than a plea for help or understanding - which suggests the speaker doesn't actually understand.

You're right, it's horrible that people have to come close to dying before they get acknowledged as sick. And it can be a vicious circle, because as long as 'mentally ill' in most people's minds means 'Norman Bates' or something similar, people are much less likely to 'out' themselves as mentally ill and help normalise it in the general perception, and who can blame them? Unlike being gay, mental illness gives you a whole host of problems besides societal stigma, and you need to keep yourself safe. That's one reason I'm so glad that celebrities like J.K. Rowling and Stephen Fry - people who have enough money in the bank they won't starve if doors start closing, among other things - are brave enough to speak out. It's not the end of the road, but it's a step along it.
 
Kit: No.. because you already have established that they are a writer.

Think of it like this.. the odds of tossing a head twice in a row is 25%..

But, if you ALREADY know that the last throw was a head, then the probability of throwing a head in the next throw is 50%.. NOT 25%
 
Okay: I've now heard arguments from both sides of the statistics controversy, and my understanding of mathematics is not up to determining the relative merits. However, I really don't want it to become the subject of a long thread because it's not the point of the essay. Let's just agree it's not very likely for a writer to have an uncommon mental disorder, because uncommon mental disorders are uncommon.
 
Donaldbain: I don't agree with you as to what Kit's premises were (given what you think they were, then you are correct). So we are basically in agreement given the disagreement we have about Kit's premises.

In other words, as Kit said, not the point of this thread.

:)
 
Kit: I think your responses are worth a long response on my part -- which will come in time. My short response, however, is to agree with the points you are making.

The people who I came to know suffered from mental illness fell into the fallowing categories: people who I loved and whose illnesses threatened their life; people who were both close friends and for whom I had an elected responsibility; people who I had an official advisory relationship with; and people who worked for me. Even though I knew something of mental illness because someone I loved had it I was very slow to "get" that the second person I am thinking about was suffering from it. This was due, in part, because there is not just one form of mental illness and I was aware of the symptoms of only one. After watching a friend suffer a complete psychotic break I became sensitized to those symptoms but am still ignorant of the outward signs of many mental illnesses. In at least one of the cases I am thinking of we had to fight to get qualified people to even look at the person in question. Who was, as soon as they were seen by a professional, institutionalized for a period of time.

The problem of the societal implications of a diagnosis make it all the harder. I have had people who worked for me who didn't want others to know that they were getting help. I have had students whose diagnoses I knew of plead that I not let a hint of the truth get out.

Hmmm, more later as I think of the implications of what you are writing about.
 
Since getting published I've had to make a general rule that I don't look at the work of strangers. There are a lot of reasons for this, time being a big one

This reminds me of the time the guy came out to fix my cable. He found out I taught mass media and wanted me to read this movie script he had written.
 
Hmmm, more later as I think of the implications of what you are writing about.

I'll look forward to it!
 
Can't Kit just clear this up? Are we speaking of a person who is known to be a writer, and attempting to determine whether they are mentally ill, or are we speaking of an arbitrary person, and attempting to determine both whether they are mentally ill, and whether they are a writer? I realize this is getting off the point, but disagreeing about this just seems kind of silly when the person who wrote the post is right here.
 
No, I'm not going to 'clear this up'. I'm not a mathematical authority: as far as I can understand there are two ways to read the stats and people are free to choose either as far as I'm concerned. You want to think I got the maths right, thanks; you want to think I got it wrong, well, I got zero out of twelve on my last maths exam so it's perfectly possible. You want to carry on the debate somewhere else, be my guests and have fun; saying 'Kit sucks at maths' will not hurt my feelings at all. I do suck at maths and I care not who knows it.

What I am going to do is delete any further posts in this thread on the subject of mathematics. Sorry, but I am. I don't usually resort to such draconian measures, but this is a subject that has high stakes potential.

There may be people with mental illnesses reading this right now, or people responsible for people with mental illnesses, and I don't want them to feel their problems are being trivialised by half the posts treating a statistical debate as more important than the diseases that are ruining their lives. I know people who were motivated to seek help by reading about mental illnesses online, either because it provided information or a sense of social support that they'd previously lacked, and if there's even the smallest chance some lurker out there is in that position, I'm not prepared to risk it.

Seriously, guys. I'm sorry if I'm spoiling anyone's fun, but on this issue, there's a time and a place. You want to have the maths conversation, take it outside.
 
This might be a little off topic, but I was wondering what people thought of the portrayal of depression in the recent Doctor Who episode, "Vincent and the Doctor". I thought it was realistic and respectful (or at least as much so as anything ever is in Dr. Who), and I found it very normalizing and humanizing.

It was nice because they didn't connect Vincent's depression to his art in a way that implied that the one was necessary for the other, but nor did it pretend that they were completely unrelated. The portrayal of a depressed person as a whole person, capable of moments of joy, while at the same time not pretending that those moments of joy will take away the depression, was very refreshing.
 
As usual very interesting. I follow the works of an author who many people speculate on regarding their mental health, and whilst I love debating the author's books, I hate the hearsay and unfounded gossip over what kind of mental disorder they have.

I think I've mentioned on your blog before that I've suffered depression on and off for several years, and that my other half is currently being treated for psychosis (which, coincidentally developed after he was given a particular medication for depression *shrug*). I'm perhaps over-sensitive to terms like "mental illness" and "depression" being thrown around as a result.

Depression is becoming a watered-down word, thrown around whenever anyone's had a bad day or is feeling miserable about their job/finances/love life etc. It's a word people use without really thinking about, and whilst I don't blame any for that (since I do it as much as anyone), it does irritate the hell out of me when real depression is dismissed with a "pull your socks up" type response.

Hmm. I can't really talk about this without getting emotional and angry, so I'll leave it at that and see what other people have to say!
 
It's a word people use without really thinking about, and whilst I don't blame any for that (since I do it as much as anyone), it does irritate the hell out of me when real depression is dismissed with a "pull your socks up" type response.

Totally with you on the irritation. (Though I'd say 'makes me really, really angry'.) It's kind of awkward the way the word has two confusable meanings. I've taken to saying that I feel 'dispirited' or 'discouraged' or 'down', or that I find something 'bleak' or 'negative' - basically going to my thesaurus-brain to try and find ways not to say 'depressed'. Anyway, I certainly don't blame you for getting worked up about it. Injustice is worth getting worked up over. (Though not, of course, to the extent of harming yourself, and getting too mad if you're trying to stay on top of depression isn't necessarily the most fun way to pass an evening!)

Hope you and your other half are doing okay at the moment?
 
It's been a long time since I read The Stars' Tennis Balls, but what was it that said "depressive" to you?
 
Note: Below I am using the word “metaphor" as one does when discussing how human beings use scripts and word pictures to understand the world.

One of the first things you learn when studying the role/usage of scripts in human communication is the tremendous power of the metaphor. Books have been written (as have, of course, dissertations) on the impact that the changing metaphors for the human brain have had on our concepts as to the possibilities of that brain. As well as our ideas of what can go “wrong” with the brain.

Some forms of mental illness were once seen as “possession.” We did not doubt that people heard voices in their head. What we questioned was the source of those voices -- angelic or demonic. What doctors now diagnose as depression was either a sin (excessive inner self-dwelling) or yet another form of possession.

Today we don’t generally speak of possession or sin. Now we speak of brain chemistry, addiction or character flaws. Our imagery of mental illness has moved but not perhaps always to the betterment of those suffering from it. The general public tends to see those diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia as either broken (their brains are fundamentally damaged) or as weak (if only they applied themselves they would get over it.)

Both of these metaphors stand in the way of the fair treatment of people suffering from mental illnesses and discourage people from reaching out to others either to admit their “problem” or to suggest that the other is mentally ill.

Indeed, these metaphors stand in the way of us recognizing mental illness in some of those around us and incorrectly labelling others. When we like/admire people we are often loathe to effectively label them as weak or broken. When we dislike people we find it easy to “diagnose” the reasons why we dislike them.

When we talk/think about the mental illnesses themselves we have several images/tools/metaphors and few of them are helpful. Depression is misleadingly named. Schizophrenia was long misunderstood as having a split personality.

The word depression is, itself, unfortunate. Unless you have yourself suffered from clinically diagnosed depression or closely known someone else who did if is likely that you think of depression as a minor thing that can be shaken off if only one applies sufficient effort. To be depressed is not to be unhappy although people who are depressed are unhappy. To be depressed is to be unable to function normally. Perhaps the depressed person is incapable of dressing themselves. Perhaps they cannot organize the simple task of eating. Depressed people suffer. Depressed people die. They hurt those around them.

Given the problems inherent with the broken metaphor what then does one do when one feels that a friend may be suffering from a mental illness. To suggest that they are is to suggest (given popular understandings) that they are broken or weak or flawed in a fundamental way. To suggest that a person has a mental illness is to risk putting them into a ghetto for the rest of their live. Once a person is so labeled they will have more difficulty getting a job. They may even have financial problems.

In summary --
a) those who misunderstand the nature and symptoms of mental illness are less likely to recognize them and
b)more likely to wrongly label those they dislike or misunderstand as being mentally ill
c) while being, at the same time, more likely to treat those who have been labelled mentally ill unfairly
d) and less likely to support real sources of support and help for those who actually are mentally ill.
 
It's been a long time since I read The Stars' Tennis Balls, but what was it that said "depressive" to you?

The tone, basically. The hypersensitive and furious self-hatred and/or hostility of so many of the characters; the distaste with which any kind of self-satisfaction, or even self-esteem, gets portrayed and the harshness with which it's punished; the sense of a profoundly hostile world; the extremity of the physical horrors; the nihilistic ending in which there's little left but a kind of wasteland that doesn't even give the avenger any kind of satisfaction for creating it...

Basically there's a note of relentless judgement that sees ugliness and shameful grotesquerie everwhere in the book's style, and that's a tone I've heard elsewhere. From everything I can see of Fry himself, he seems like a brave, talented and pleasant man who's neither ugly nor grotesque, but people who have mood disorders often are excellent individuals.

I'd be a bit cautious in saying all this, as someone's writing personality is often different from the rest of them and it's not anyone's place to judge someone solely by their books, and I'm not criticising Fry as a writer; I admire him, and creating such a strong tone is a credit to his abilities as a stylist. I think he painted a vivid portrait of a disease he's identified himself as suffering from. Just my opinion, of course.
 
@mmy: a whole load of excellent points. Thank you for that.

An interesting thing in terms of my personal experience is that I can sort of see where the metaphors come from. I don't believe in literal possession, but I've seen a depressive episode distort someone's face so much, submerge their personality so fast and replace it with something so malign, that the idea of a vindictive alien consciousness temporarily taking possession of them didn't seem that far-fetched. Likewise, I've sometimes thought that depression could have an addictive appearance: the way a sufferer can get stuck going over the same thoughts over and over again can come across like they're addicted to them - taking no pleasure in getting their fix, but somehow compelled by it.

None of which, of course, means such metaphors have a place in medical or colloquial understanding. They can be useful ways of reflecting on it between people who have actual experience and know the difference between a metaphor and the reality, but what we need most is more accuracy and science.

I found it perversely encouraging, for instance, when I read this article -
http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2008/07/06/head_fake/
- precisely because it identified depression as neurodegenerative like Alzheimer's: that is, because it identified it as having a physical cause, and thus was some evidence I could use to argue that it wasn't something you could 'snap out of'.

In my experience, depression is best understood not as a mood. It is, as far as I understand the research, a neurological disease with complicated causes that aren't properly understood but is most likely triggered by a combination of genetic vulnerability and environmental factors, of which abnormal emotional pain is one of the symptoms - but not the only one. It's the one that gets noticed, but there are a whole load of other symptoms, often including physical ones like mysterious aches and pains. I think if it's presented in its proper context, it gets much harder to see it as a mere 'mood', which can only be to the good.

And yeah, 'schizophrenic'. I'm really quite dismayed to see the way it's entered slang as a way of meaning 'contradictory' or 'confusing', as in 'the film seems kind of schizophrenic about politics'. Reeeally not helping. I've personally encountered the psychotic diseases less, but enough to know that they're really, really nasty.
 
Lol, Kit - yes "very, very angry" sums up my feelings better too. I am not against having a go at people who use the word "depressed" when they really mean "annoyed" or "upset." And like you, I try to use words like despondent, discouraged, or something else.

And thank you, yes, we're both fine. He's made progress in leaps and bounds since Christmas, and I'm extremely proud of him :)
 
Sorry Kit. I did not mean to derail your thread.
 
"None of which, of course, means such metaphors have a place in medical or colloquial understanding. They can be useful ways of reflecting on it between people who have actual experience and know the difference between a metaphor and the reality, but what we need most is more accuracy and science."

There's an additional reason for being cautious about this metaphoric link, and that's because establishing too close a link between 'possession' and a particular mental illness can be extremely misleading in the context of cross-cultural psychiatry -- a Nepalese shaman who's allowed themselves to be apparently possessed usually isn't suffering from a mental illness such as schizophrenia, because the behaviour is normal and probably healthy relative to the cultural context they're operating in regardless of the existence or otherwise of the possessing spirits.

If I recall what I've read on this correctly (and I'm not an expert, so pinches of salt are required!), what's unhealthy and likely a sign of an underlying problem is when the 'possession' occurs outside of that culturally allowed context and causes distress. But the corresponding illness in that case is more likely to manifest as a culturally specific 'possession disorder' rather than one of the more familiar mental illnesses. In that case, saying that the sufferer is schizophrenic (because only someone who's schizophrenic would think that they're possessed) may be rather unhelpful, as it'll probably lead to them being prescribed the wrong treatment.

Handling these kinds of anthropological issues in psychiatry can be very, very tricky, to say the least.
 
Probably late with this, but I only just realized that you're back online. Good to see you back!

Anyway, mmy said: Now we speak of brain chemistry, addiction or character flaws.
What I seem to be hearing a lot lately is less chemistry than electronics, that is, mental illness as a flaw or failure in the brain's "wiring." I'm not sure that that's any more helpful as a metaphor; after all, crossed wires can be unsnarled, electrical connections can be restored, so why can't mental illness be correctable-- "Just fix it already!" seems to be the attitude of a lot of people, as if the sufferer just needed to call tech support.
 
@Kit: I really like the comment your made on slacktivist Mental illness is fatally under-taught and always has been, and it's possible that if you aren't very familiar with mental illness you might misidentify sick behaviour as bad behaviour. Without experience, it's easily done.


I think that is as good a summation of what we have been talking about as we are going to get.
 
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