What exactly are “mental health problems”?
In the mainstream, psychological difficulties are seen as “symptoms” of an “illness” or “mental disorder” and based on this the focus is put on suppressing them, either by using drugs, or shock, or by psychological interventions that also aim to “eliminate the problem.”
Unfortunately, this mainstream approach often works poorly, and too often its main effect is to aggravate the problem, or to cause “collateral damage” as critically important parts of the person are suppressed along with the supposed “symptoms.”
But if we want to replace the mainstream approach, we need a coherent alternative view, which realistically frames both the difficulties people experience and suggests better approaches to resolving those problems.
One avenue to this needed reconceptualization was expressed by Jacqui Dillon, who wrote that “When you understand your own ‘symptoms’ as meaningful and essential survival strategies, a more respectful and loving acceptance of yourself begins to emerge.”
I like a lot about that perspective and the shift in attitude it suggests. It helps explain why the traditional approach does so poorly – it’s difficult to heal if we are thinking of essential parts of ourselves as an illness!
There is one possible complication with this perspective though: if we think of disturbing patterns of experience or behavior as being “essential” then we might also feel stuck with them just as they are, with no alternative but just learning to accept and respect them no matter how much trouble they are causing.
One way out of that bind is to think of “symptoms” as meaningful strategies that do fit and are indeed essential in some kinds of situations, but which also are often put into action unconsciously or without much thinking or in mistaken ways. That is, at times they may be truly necessary for our survival, at other times they only seem necessary to some part of our psyche that activates them, while in reality they may be “going too far” and backfiring with destructive effects.
Defining them this way allows for more ambiguity, and suggests that each strategy etc. must be looked at in context, to sort out what really is essential or at least helpful in a given situation from what is well intended but misguided, and may be currently destructive. From that perspective, what we need is not wholesale suppression of what disturbs us, or complete acceptance, but rather an increase in discernment about what strategies are working or not, in particular situations. A strategy that truly was lifesaving during a traumatic situation, for example, may be extremely damaging when carried on into everyday life: but if we can appreciate the way it saved us at one time, we may also be better able to “let it go” in a present that no longer requires it.
To clarify this reconceptualization, what I would like to do now is to outline some of the major categories of psychiatric “symptoms” and describe how they can be reframed as possibly helpful, though often harmful, strategies: