So, what is the difference between a genius and a madman?
I would argue that perhaps there is no difference between them, in and of themselves… that the entirety of the difference may lie in external circumstances.
Take the person who follows their dream-idea with utter dedication ’til its fulfillment, or their life-energy is gone. What determines how they are viewed? Well, whether or not their idea was successful, I suppose.
Success is dependant on not being too far ahead of their time, on the opportunity and resources to follow their dreams, on the support of family, friends and extended community to permit them to “depart from the norm”. Very little is dependent on normal intelligence: if it was just normal intelligence, no-one would classify it as genius.
To get down to a more serious level, I’m hideously annoyed by how much of a taboo mental illness still is in our society.
People like to think we are gradually tackling the taboos in society. We chip away at them by having an open discussion forum where issues can be resolved. Whatever the situation in other cases, I am becoming increasingly convinced that this is not working in the case of mental illness.
And that bothers me.
There are a number of contributing factors. I’m not naive enough to think these factors are trivial or easily resolved… but I am conscious of the intertwining of issues in a trickily Catch22 manner.
Anyways, as best I can work it out at the moment, this seems to be the state of affairs:
- No-one is willing to broach the question in the first place. By caring about the issue, there is the immediate suspicion raised that someone must have a vested interest, and therefore is very probably One of Them.
- Leading neatly onto the issue of the stigma attached to being mentally ill. Somehow, being mentally ill is a ‘weakness’ in a way that physical illness is not so closely allied with as it once was. Somehow we’re all meant to show “strength of character” in facing all life throws at us. Albeit with moments of reduced-smilingness, but nevertheless having a brave and courageous spirit.
- No-one is willing to be a spokesperson for these people deemed the weak of society. By becoming a spokesperson, it is allying yourself with them and somehow detracting some of the merit and sensible-ness from what you do actually say.
- Becoming One of Them is thereby considered such a major step by society, that only those really “driven to the extremity” ever do face up to the scary prospect of receiving the stigma. This in itself helps to perpetuate the notion, as it is those most extreme cases that exemplify the definition, thereby reinforcing the idea of the worst-case-scenario with respect to being mentally ill.
- Anyone willing to be such a spokesperson from within the ostracised community is written off with “You can’t listen to them… they’ve got mental health problems… *nudge* *wink* We all know the dangers of that!”
But do we? We might like to think we do, but because we never discuss them, it is all just guesswork. As my dear Dad was reminding me last night:
Robert Bolton said about fears that we pierce ourselves through with many sorrows which may never come to pass; they are just as sore as if they did come to pass! Better to take one day at a time
With mental illness, we have this great picture of the danger and fear of it, and yet a chunk of that fear is nothing more than the fear of the unknown: the stuff we’ve never talked about so we don’t know what to expect, or know how to go about tackling it.
Ok, so all this is one side of it, yet there is even a far more logical and worryingly reasonable issue with being branded as mentally ill: the management of an individuals autonomy.
On a practical level, I have heard it admitted that now we do not in our country give mentally ill people an appropriate level of autonomy. Clearly it is a difficult issue even from a theoretical viewpoint, yet very often the focus of any discussion is on removing autonomy for the safety and good of others, as well as protecting people from themselves.
Yet, from a mental health aspect, it is the very loss of autonomy which can perpetuate the unhealthily negative spiral. While previously feeling out-of-control of their lives, they now quite literally are out-of-control of their lives. If anything perpetuates that feeling, it is certainly the loss of autonomy.
Now I’m not arguing there should not be some legitimate, and accepted, loss of autonomy… but only that the balance should be very carefully drawn. There is an injustice and a helplessness in a mentally ill person having too much autonomy taken from them. As justification, I would offer the one cruel reason that it creates a subsequent inability to argue their own case: anything they say can be written off as “just the illness speaking”.
I would suggest that to some level a person may be capable of understanding for themselves where that balance should be. We’ve all been caught in an argument where we’ve found ourselves boxed-in-a-corner. We know perfectly well we’re being unreasonable, but the embarrassment of admitting our fault tempts us to say something illogical and unreasonable, and… well, just blatantly silly!
It is possible in some circumstances to identify what makes us reach these boxed-in situations, thereby finding our own techniques to handle the situation. For example, using the old cliche to “count to ten”.
People do know for themselves when things are “not quite right”. Similarly in some cases of mental illness (perhaps the less extreme cases) it may be possible for the individual to explain “The fear usually hits when I go to sleep”, so prescribing a willingly entered into situation where the autonomy of the individual is restricted only while they are going to sleep. This then permits them to face the challenge of the rest of their lives for themselves.
But then, that power should be wielded carefully. If someone honestly realises what autonomy they need to fore-go for their own and others benefit, and they are willing to admit as much, and permit that autonomy to be taken from them, it is by no means justified to take more than the granted share of autonomy “in the interests of safety” or whatever the excuse may be.
One of the best pieces of advice my Dad has given me involves decision-making:
Never make decisions when you are sick, tired or angry.
Incidentally, the one story I have to tell is when this advice has not helped me. (There have been numerous times when I have tested it out as a psychological exercise, and have proven it to be sensible.)
There was an occasion when I was quite ill on the morning of an exam. Knowing that I could potentially be feeling better by the time of the exam in the afternoon, and also knowing that I would perhaps have to skip the exam, I asked advice of trusted people, primarily someone within my university department who was to some measure responsible for dealing with such cases. I made the deliberate decision before I heard the advice, that I would follow it even if I personally disagreed with it.
This decision was based around the idea of me forfeiting my autonomy in a situation where I knew my rationality was compromised by the usual very-short-term perspective introduced by illness. Anyways, to keep the story to a reasonable length, the result was that I did sit the exam (while ridiculously ill) and I do with hindsight think that that was definitely the wrong decision.
However, I don’t for one moment regret my approach to making the decision. As an individual, I bear responsibility for the decision, yet in the circumstances I could do no better than use the best resources available to me for that decision. The fact that those resources turned out to be not-good-enough does not detract from the reality that it was “the best I had at the time”.
I guess all this is a bit tangential, but I was trying to illustrate my understanding of this concept of autonomy, and the complexity of the issues it raises.
Anyways, on this note I think I have said enough, dear friends. The very best of health to you all, especially mental health 😉
Ps: My favourite film is still “A Beautiful Mind” Not necessarily because it is the best film ever, but because it does address issues that no-one else dares talk about… And also, it makes me cry every time! No matter that I can see the “weepy” bits coming, and try to stop myself… but hey!
If I was to be perfectly honest, the latter third is overly fairytale-like in the triumph over mental illness. Not that I believe such triumph is not possible, but more because I believe society the way it is right now does not “allow” people to have that sort of victory over their own ‘inner demons’ or whatever you may wish to call them.