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“I wondered whether systems in the brain concerned with the perception (or projection) of meaning, significance, and intentionality, systems underlying a sense of wonder and mysteriousness, systems for appreciation of the beauty of art and science, had lost their balance in schizophrenia, producing a mental world overcharged with intense emotion and distortions of reality.”
-Oliver Sacks, from his autobiography On The Move
Oliver Sacks, the great neurologist and humanist, is dying of liver cancer. He is still busy writing and, ever the scientist, is currently featured in an article in New York Times where he publicly discusses the diminution of his own cognitive abilities. His writing about his patients and their many neurological eccentricities has had a monumental impact on my professional and personal interactions with the world. The way that he describes himself makes it easier for me to accept my own quirky social tendencies and esoteric preoccupations.
A fifth of the way through his recent autobiography, I was stopped in my tracks by the passage you see quoted above. His words evoke a subtle feeling that I experience often when dealing with individuals who have ready access to the world of the psychotic, and indirectly, he captures something that I have always sensed intuitively: that people with schizophrenia seem clued-in to what is truly valuable and meaningful.
Why mental illness? Of the myriad causes for me to choose, why try to help those with mental illness feel stronger and better about themselves?
Personally, I believe that we live in a world, that isn’t sane, and that people who are labeled as mentally ill are, more often than not, just reacting to the insanity of this world. (They tend to be pretty loud about it, too.) The insanity of our inner world can stem from family, neighborhood, an externally-imposed system of values or, God help us, the social service system itself. The contradictions we are forced to live with are innumerable. Often, when I listen to someone veering off into mania, they sound as if hyper-charged with the so-called American Dream, our de facto national manifesto that equates the attainment of power, wealth, and social and sexual dominance with happiness. Because of this, people suffering with depression are often consumed with their lack of things, of tangible evidence that their lives are successful, have meaning and purpose. People labeled mentally ill sometimes experience suffering from an over-developed sense of empathy, and because that empathy is seldom reciprocated by those around them, what might otherwise be a gift leaves them feeling isolated, injured, unappreciated, and alone.
So, how better to respond to a dysfunctional world than to focus on those of us that are labeled insane, the victims of a world that is clearly demented?
Painted Brain envisions a society where people are valued for their uniqueness and supported in their growth, not just as a model for good mental health practice, but as a blueprint for a better world.
By standing up for those who are labeled insane we take a stand against a world that itself has gone crazy.
Many say that how a society treats its most disenfranchised and helpless members is the true test of its morality, or modernity.
Measuring our progress by that standard, we are failing.
The most recent count of homeless people in LA shows that despite an increase in services and available beds in local shelters, the number of people living on the streets has gone up more than ten percent in the last two years. Los Angeles is one of the wealthiest cities in the world. A minuscule redistribution of funds could provide minimal housing for everyone. On the other hand, LA just passed a bill implementing a one dollar annual increase in the minimum wage for its citizens, raising it to $15 per hour by the year 2020.
Maybe there is some sanity out there after all.
For the time being though, I am concentrating my energies on creating sanity with some of the coolest people on earth, right here at the Painted Brain.
Dave Leon LCSW is a licensed clinical therapist and founder/director of the Painted Brain. He writes an editorial column for Painted Brain News.