The Causes for Mental Health: A Long History of Misattributions

What we call mental health issues arise in complex occurrences of external, concrete contexts: stress from economic, social, and opportunity issues.; lack of strategies; lack of ways to control outcomes or people; consistently bad life histories; etc.

Because we cannot easily ‘see’ how these issues arise–there will never be a single salient ’cause’ that jumps out at us–the history has been a sad one of attributing the causes of mental health to all sorts of weird inventions and verbal illusions: there is never going to be a single or simple ’cause’.  We need to use better methods of observation if we want to ‘see’ how mental health issues arise from our life situations.  The current forms of observations fail to see the whole contexts.  Hence the Blue Holistic Elephant.

Because they are inventions of language, these ’causes’ have often been built to fit with someone’s interests and biases, and this also includes the biases and interests of sufferers.  I have talked to many people who find comfort or relief to think that their mental distress is not of their making because it is a ‘brain thing’.  Of course, that the issues arise in their life contexts is not their fault either… And of course, academics and psychiatrists have long been known to invent grand theories to suit their ideas or careers.

Today I came across a nice example of all this that dates from WWI.  Despite the laughable ‘brain theories’, these are not much different to many current ideas although we have big, expensive scientific machines now.

Denis Winter.(1978). Death’s men: Soldiers of the Great War (p. 130).

Just what the soldiers classified as mental cases were suffering from baffled most people at the time. Though shell bursts apparently triggered off most of the patients, only 3 percent of those classified officially as ‘shellshock’ cases had actual brain lesions.  In February 1915 the Lancet could only suggest molecular commotion in the brain as a result of high-frequency vibration.  John Bull, Bottomley’s sensational magazine widely read by the troops, advertised Dr. Muller’s Nerve Nutrient (guaranteed not German), ‘The primary trouble in all phases of nerve exhaustion’, ran the advertisement, ‘is the semi-starvation of the nerve cells, the reason being that the sufferer fails to extract from his daily food the precious, concentrated nutrient that nerve cells live and thrive on.’   As an opinion, it was no further from the truth that official medical pronouncements of the time… Today we understand better how severe physical symptoms may be generated by mental anxiety.

Do we? Really?


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