“Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Psalm 42:14,22a”
You may well find this title disturbing, confusing, provocative, or maybe even “heretical”. How can mental illness be a “modern invention?” People have deep emotional pain, even to the point of not being able to function or sometimes committing suicide. But that’s not the point – life’s deepest hurts or that deep pain of the heart and soul are very real, no one can or should ever attempt to deny or minimize that. But is it an “illness”? Is it really a matter of biology – genes or some neurochemical imbalance for example? In some cases, like Parkinson’s Disease and others, yes, no question. But what if you are really shy, or defy others too often? Those behaviors can be classified as “disorders” and are categorized under mental illness with a clinical diagnosis.
Allan V. Horwitz is a professor in the Department of Sociology and the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy, and Aging Research at Rutgers University. He has authored several books, but I find his book “Creating Mental Illness” (2002, The University of Chicago Press) most fascinating. He makes a compelling, well documented and reasoned argument for the idea that “mental illness” has been invented, or created, largely over the last 25 years by modern psychiatry.
Few would dispute the fact that most professionals in psychiatry, and the general public (including most churchgoers!) understand mental illnesses as brain diseases, not unlike our typical notion of diseases (pg. 5). However, the new classifications in psychiatry with the many “disorders” have almost nothing to do with science, but instead everything to do with politics, economics, professional prestige, desire for clinicians to retain their client bases and the interest of the pharmaceutical industry (pages 55-81). “Mental illness” includes more and more of personal reactions to the stress of life, difficult relationships, cultural and social issues – what some have called the “progressive pathology of everyday life”. Quite a bold thesis! But read the book, and others like it. Furthermore, modern psychiatry with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (“DSM”) does not look for a cause (or “etiology”) of a disorder or mental illness (pg. 73). Does not this make eventual healing even more difficult?
Here we see Psalm 42 potent and profound “why are you so downcast, O my soul?” Notice reference to “soul” – neuroscience is now beginning to consider people’s “souls” since there are more and more phenomena in neuroscience which are increasingly difficult to explain unless one has the concept of a “soul”, beyond “brain” alone. The psalmist is struggling to find a reason – why is he in such emotional turmoil? The question appears twice in the psalm. The psalmist wants more than “categorization and symptom management’ – he wants to know the cause or causes as the first step to healing in his spiritual crisis.
Let us never underestimate or wonder at the relevance of the Word of God. The psalms are not ever “deficient” in comparison to modern science when understanding and dealing with deep emotional turmoil and pain. Remember, Jesus is the co-creator of the universe and all logic and scientific truth is from him who holds the universe together (Col. 1:15-17; 2:3-4). When Jesus raised Lazarus and others from the dead, you can be certain that he knew all about entropy and more. So, when we “simply” sit in Jesus’ presence in the ministry of healing and transforming prayer to receive his revelation, truth and healing unique to each person’s unique history, let us expect great things to happen! He is the Lord!
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