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  • Writer's pictureDeric Hollings

It Isn't Always Mental Health

Throughout my youth, I heard the name Sigmund Freud in relation to what is now commonly referred to as “mental health”— a person’s condition with regard to one’s psychological, emotional, and behavioral well-being.

As “psychology” relates to the scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behavior in a given context, “health” generally refers to the state of being free from illness or injury. However, “mental health,” “psychology,” and “health” aren’t used synonymously in common parlance.

Whereas Freud is considered the “father of psychoanalysis” and his theoretical perspective is marred by controversy, the field of psychology is broad and Freud’s contribution to ongoing study is not representative of many modern attitudes.

Likewise, when I hear colloquial use of “mental health,” people tend to place emphasis on well-being versus the absence of illness or injury. This seems odd to me, because if it were a coin, mental health would appear on one side and mental illness on the other.

Alas, life doesn’t easily fit into binary options. People are complex systems and we aren’t narrowly divided into this-or-that, health-or-illness sides of a coin. Indeed, my point illustrated in the current blogpost rests on this understanding.

Reader, forgive me an anecdote. While in graduate school for counseling, I heard a story about Freud. One of his five stages of psychosexual development is the oral stage, from birth to one year, during which trust, comfort, and identification are stimulated through the mouth (e.g., breastfeeding).

Freud, said to be an avid cigar smoker, was purportedly questioned by someone about his habit. As the tale goes, a suspicious interviewer tried to ensnare Freud in the confines of the neurologist’s psychoanalytic theory—hoodwinking Freud into admitting he was stuck in the oral stage of development.

Legend has it that Freud puffed his cigar, pondered for a moment, and then quipped, “Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.” Perhaps Freud’s perceived infantile level of maturity was nothing more than coincidence.

If this were an authentic account, Freud’s response would infer that not always are markers of developmental, psychological, or even health-based conditions indicative of immature growth, mental or emotional disorders, or a sign of illness or injury.

However, there is no evidence that the amusing story about Freud ever occurred. Sometimes, misquotes are simply misattributed anecdotes which do not need name recognition in order to retain meaning.

So, too, it would seem is the case for the distortion of “mental health” as a cause for unpleasant, unfortunate, unhelpful, unproductive, and unlikable circumstances. It isn’t always mental health that can explain why undesirable behavior or events occur.

In my personal and professional life, I hear of people claiming that spouses, bosses, politicians, friends, coworkers, teachers, loved ones, or motorists are responsible for the mental health of others. As a Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) practitioner, I question the validity of such claims.

Using the ABC Model, I understand that an Action (i.e., event, occurrence, circumstance, etc.) happens, a person Believes (i.e., thinks, colloquially “feels,” regards, etc.) something about the action, and a Consequence (i.e., emotion, bodily sensation, behavior, etc.) then results.

Rather than an Action-Consequence connection (e.g., something happens and I then feel angry), REBT maintains that our reactions are properly represented by the Belief-Consequence connection (e.g., what I told myself about the action results in anger).

As such, your boss treats you with contempt (Action), you say to yourself, “I must be treated with respect or else this is the last straw” (Belief), and because your demand has been violated, you set the building on fire—though only after retrieving your favorite stapler (Consequence).

In this scenario, your behavior isn’t because of mental illness. It has little—if anything—to do with mental health. Instead, it’s what you believe that results in the unpleasant emotion of anger, uncomfortable tightness in your chest, and unproductive arsonist behavior.

Though it’s fashionable to claim, “I need a mental health day,” when stressed out at work or, “You’re messing with my mental health,” when angered during an argument, it isn’t always mental health that is to blame for your reflexive emotions, sensations, or behavior.

Moreover, and here’s where matters become as controversial as Freud’s “distorted and condescending” perspective on women, it isn’t always mental health that causes devastation such as mass shootings, infanticide, war provocation, or other disastrous outcomes.

Time and time again, I encounter reports of behavior that many people consider difficult to understand. It’s discovered that a female educator has been grooming and raping underage students in a school—her mental health is supposedly to blame.

A mass shooting occurs in a public place and members of the legacy media scramble to unravel details of the shooter’s mental health. If shooter X leans to a rightwing sociopolitical persuasion, evil, bigotry, or other causes are to blame. If shooter X is aligned with leftwing influence—mental health is allegedly to blame.

A foreign president wrongfully invades a neighboring country—his mental health and evil are apparently to blame. A mother meticulously murders each of her small children—her mental health is purportedly to blame.

Sometimes, heinous acts—no matter how incomprehensible—are just heinous acts. It isn’t always mental health.

Despite the perceivably contentious nature of my appraisal of this matter, I invite the reader to consider the ABC Model. It isn’t what I’m saying (Action) that causes your response (Consequence).

What you believe about my assessment is worth examination if you experience discomfort regarding my stance. Nonetheless, I understand that it’s convenient to merely misattribute unpleasant aspects of existence to mental health or even mental illness.

However, it isn’t always mental health that is to blame. I urge people to consider this proposal, because associating evil, bigotry, hate, or harmful attributes as equivalent to legitimate mental illness diagnoses (i.e., schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, autism, etc.) is absurd.

Herein, I’m speaking against the stigma associated with mental illness. As well, I’m addressing the fact that not everything ascribed to “mental health” actually concerns freedom from injury or illness, or even represents well-ness in any distinguishable way.

I think the words we use matter. Reader, if you agree, how may you begin to consider reframing your concept of mental health after reading this entry?

Perhaps I’ve not persuaded you and you reject my proposition. Very well, what would it take to convince you that it isn’t always mental health that may explain belief-based consequences or abhorrent behavior not explainable by content of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders?

Maybe you neither affirm nor deny my premise and you remain altogether disinterested. If this is the case, I thank you for reading up until this point.

For those who experience difficulty with self-disturbing beliefs and would like to know more about how the REBT method may help improve your level of functioning and quality of life, I may be able to help.

If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.

As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.

At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!

Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW

Photo credit c.1935 [right IN/0019], fair use


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