While some will frame Eleanor’s story, told in her awesome TED video, as the triumph of an individual struggling against “mental illness,” I believe the story might better be seen as a refutation of the whole “illness of the mind” metaphor, and as an indication of a desperate need for a new paradigm.
When human experiences like hearing voices are framed as “illness,” the strategy of attempting to eradicate them naturally follows. When Eleanor was first hospitalized, she was trained in this model, which directly led to what she describes as her engagement in a “psychic civil war,” where the voices multiplied and became overwhelmingly nasty. Unfortunately, this is not unusual: research shows that fearing experiences, and attempting to avoid and/or suppressing them, often predicts the escalation of difficulties.
All humans experience inner conflict at times. Consciously, we may want our mind to behave in a particular way; but we have impulses, emotions, thoughts, and sometimes voices that have other ideas. Problems with this sort of inner rebellion can range from trivial to life threatening, from the seemingly everyday to disruptions that seem bizarre and overwhelming, such as some kinds of voice hearing that are common after experiences like severe trauma.
Most current mental health treatment is based on labeling those disruptive parts as being “symptoms” of a disorder or illness, and then attempting to suppress them by any means possible, especially with drugs. Unfortunately, this can backfire in a number of ways: the drugs and other means employed may suppress many kinds of functioning and not just the disturbance, the attempts at suppression can stir up more conflict, and finally, the person fails to notice that the disturbing experiences may have had something positive to offer if understood correctly.
Eleanor very definitely did not recover by “battling her mental illness.” She recovered by considering the radical notion that the disturbing experiences and voices were not aspects of an illness or of something to be eliminated, but rather were signals from the parts of herself that had been most disturbed by events which had happened to her, parts of her that carried valuable messages if only she could learn to listen in the right way.
It is very difficult to heal when one is identifying parts of oneself as an illness or as symptoms of an illness. It becomes possible to heal when one appreciates all the parts of oneself as having something to contribute, even if those same parts may be confused in some way, or in some way need to be subjected to limits. Voices or impulses demanding self harm for example may seem to be entirely negative, but they can also be used as helpful indicators of underlying issues that need to be addressed. Understood this way, both conflict with the voices or impulses, and instances of acting on them in destructive ways, can be reduced, while appropriate action to address the deeper issues can be facilitated.
Wise leaders learn how to find something of value in rebellion or dissent, and are always learning from that which resists them. I believe that a wiser mental health system would aid people in being curious about and even learning from that which disturbs them, creating dialogue and negotiation rather than attempts at suppression. Shifting to such an approach would require that professionals drop the pretense of being “experts” in understanding mental disorders, but it would allow them to actually practice expertise in helping people like Eleanor find their own version of peaceful coexistence within their complex inner selves. It’s time to stop the suppression, and to begin creating the conditions for healing and peace making.