As regular readers are well aware by now, I write a lot about what I think is wrong with the mental health field. This isn’t to say that I think I have all the answers or know what the solution is; I don’t. I have no idea. But it’s my hope that by writing down my thoughts it will eventually lead to something useful. But for now, I will continue writing.
First, I need to clarify what I mean by “severely mentally ill”. When I say this, I am referring to individuals whose illness is so severe that they can not hold down a job or participate in society in a traditional way. In addition, medication and therapy doesn’t seem to have much of an effect for them at all. This is the population I am currently tasked with working with and I find that I, as well as the rest of society, are failing them.
I was thinking about this group of unique individuals and I realized that historically speaking, society used to have a place for them. Sadly this is no longer true. Think about it: the individual who insists on being homeless and desires no attachments to family or assistance, in Tibet and Nepal these were people who were seen as being more spiritually in tune than the rest of us. The willingly homeless would wander from village to village, temple to temple, begging for food. They were given respect and honor for sacrificing the material world. Now we call them slackers. It may be hard to understand for those not familiar with this group, that there are actually people who insist on being homeless and do not want an apartment and a shower. But they do exist and we will never solve the problem of homelessness in this country until we recognize these people and find a solution that they are amenable to. Forcing them into shelters, or arresting them like is done in some cities, just doesn’t work.
In the Western world, if you go far enough back in history, you realize that we also had an honored place for the mentally ill. The Court Fool was typically a disabled or severely mentally ill person who had an important place in the royal court. Because they lacked a filter, the King relied on the Fool to point out things to them that others did not have the courage to. Kings would often consult with their fools and the Fool was immune from punishment for criticizing the King. Yes, there was also an element of humor to it. As we all know, the honest truth can be quite humorous. This was an honored position and parents would even coach their children in pretending to be mentally ill in the hopes that they would be chosen to be the Court Fool.
Another characterization of the severely mentally ill is what the field refers to as “elopement”. That is, the sudden urge to get up and leave everything behind. In the past, they would have been wandering minstrels, or even simply wanderers. The wanderer lived a solitary life, wandering far and wide. They would travel town to town, bringing stories of far away lands. An amazing example of this is that in Iceland they had stories of a city called Miklagard. This city was actually Istanbul. That is how far that wanderers traveled, from Iceland to Istanbul and back again. The information they carried was valuable and they were treated as honored guests. They would stay for a while, receive food and drink, and then when the urge struck them, they would leave again.
For those that are better students of history than I, I’m sure that there are many more examples. The severely mentally ill were Shamans, Saints, visionaries, and Prophets. They added a richness to society and lived the kind of lives that felt the most fulfilling to them. And it was seen as okay. There was no shame or judgment to it. And if that’s the case, can you really call it an “illness” or would you say that these are simply people who just see the world differently? You see, in mental health we primarily determine mental illness by the distress it causes a person. If someone’s kind of weird but otherwise happy and living the life they want to live, we wouldn’t categorize that person as mentally ill unless their behavior was hurting others in some way.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the mentally ill should be left to their own devises. I’m not saying that at all. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it would be nice if as a society we were more tolerant of individuality and allowed a place for these people in our society other than being a bagger at the grocery store.