Re-Visioning Mental Health

images6ID3VTKTEarly one Saturday morning in early May, my 12 year old son received news through Instagram a eighth-grade girl from his middle school committed suicide by sitting on the train tracks, waiting. He did not know her; I did not know her. These weeks later, I remember immediately choking up and as I compose this post, I feel the tears welling up and my throat constricting. Imagine it if you will, for a moment–sitting there, on the train tracks, having come to your decision, and waiting, just waiting. Staying still as the tracks rumble. Waiting, just waiting.

One of her last posts on-line was, of course on-line, and thus visible. In it the girl stated (I am paraphrasing) the Hell she was going to would be better than the Hell she lived in.

Now I did not know this girl so I will not presume to speculate as to what this Hell she was referring to, but I  share this story, for it touched and still touches me deeply. The pain in this little girl’s life so much that she would sit upon those train tracks waiting for it all to end.

Of course there has been talk regarding the girl’s mental health: was she of sound mind, did she have a mental illness that went untreated, undiagnosed?

May is Mental Health Awareness Month as part of Mental Health America’s campaign to “build public recognition about the importance of mental health to overall health and wellness; inform people of the ways that the mind and body interact with each other; and provide tips and tools for taking positive actions to protect mental health and promote whole health” ( This year’s motto is “Mind your Health” and it is the spirit of Mental Health Awareness Month that I write this post.

But rather than add one more voice to the multitudes who promote the value of metal health and informing the general public of issues regarding mental health, I approach the issue from a different angle–an angle suggested by the post’s title: Re-Visioning Mental Health. As such, I advocate re-thinking how we conceptualize and define mental health and, more specifically, mental health’s “opposite”–mental illness. To engage this discussion I will: A) define pertinent terminology and explore their implications;  B) shed some light on the westernization–specifically Americanization–of mental illness; and C) offer an alternate view–a re-visioning–of mental health/illness from the perspective of archetypal psychology.

Defining Terms

I start with “health.” Webster’s defines “health” as: “the condition of being well or free from disease; the overall condition of someone’s body or mind; the condition or state of something.” Mining the term a little deeper, we find the roots of the word in the Old English hælþ: “wholeness, a being whole, sound or well.”  To be healthy, then–as our linguistic fantasy informs–is to be whole. To be unhealthy, or ill, then, is to lack in this wholeness.

Second, “illness.” As one would expect, “ill” is defined by Webster’s as “not well or healthy; sick or unhealthy.” If one is ill, one is not well–in other words, something is wrong as much as the English term “health” finds its root in Old English, so too can “ill” be traced through the Old English where “ill,” as far back as the 13th century meant “morally evil, malevolent, hurtful” ( The term’s roots go back to the Old Norse illr, meaning “bad” (ibid.). In relation, “sick,” in the Old English seoc meant “ill, diseased, feeble, weak; corrupt; sad, troubled, deeply affected” and by the mid 16th century referred to a sense of being “spiritually and morally corrupt, infirm of mind.”

And that brings me to the mind, the seat–we are told–of our mental health and illness. The mind,  “the part of a person that thinks, reasons, feels, and remembers,” says Webster’s. But here I shift gears just a bit. The development of American psychology owes a heavy debt to the pioneering work of Sigmund Freud. Say what you will about Freud–his influence is unmistakable and, perhaps somewhat unfortunate–grievously misunderstood. When discussing issue of mental health and illness, we find ourselves in the broad field of psychology, which, again referring to Webster’s, is defined as “the science or study of the mind and behavior.” Science. Mind. Behavior.

Mind. Mental. Grievous error #1. Freud coined the German term “psychoanalyse,” accent placed on the first syllable: “psyche.” Psyche, from the Greek, meaning “soul.” Psychoanalysis, then, was the process of “examining the hidden aspects of our souls” (Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul, 12).  It should be noted that in using the term “soul,” Freud was not thinking in terms of the soul as defined theologically. When referring to “soul” in his own writings, Freud used the German seele, “which retained its full meaning as man’s essence, as that which is most spiritual and worthy in a man” (Bettelheim 76). While outside the scope of this post, this seele embraced those three popularly misunderstood terms so acquainted with Freud: the ego, the id, and the superego (see Bettelheim for a detailed discussion of Freud’s usage of the terms). What Freud meant by “soul”  was “that which is most valuable in man while he is alive” (Bettelheim 77, emphasis mine). What becomes problematic for an understanding of Freud–and had dramatic repercussions for the development of American psychology, concerns the translation of Freud into English. Where Freud used seele, his American translators wrote “mind.” American psychology, in other words, lost its soul.

And in losing soul, psychology would become the domain of physicians, of scientists. Grievous error #2. Again, I refer back to Webster’s where psychology is defined as a science.  The 1920’s saw a debate in America regarding who could practice psychoanalysis and it was determined only a physician could do so. Soul, as it were, would be surgically removed from its proper domain and while again outside this post’s scope, “the consequences of this action were to be far-reaching” (Bettelheim 34). With WWII, psychoanalysis would all but disappear in Europe, leaving America to lead the field. In relegating psychology to the field of science, psychology would be wed to the field of medicine, leading to practices such as lobotomies and electro-shock therapy, to today’s pharmaceutical industry designing and prescribing pills to “treat” mental illness.

So as much as this post is aimed at re-visioning mental health/illness, it is as much a call to return soul to psychology. And in attempt to begin pillsto do so in this post, I go up just for a brief time to reexamine the terms illness and health. We find the former being defined as morally evil, malevolent, hurtful–all the way back to the Old Norse illr meaning bad. In other words, illness is judged, it is moralized–the old usages of the word are quite obvious. And what do we do with evil, with the bad? We go to war with them. It is not the only way of course, but it–it seems to me–is the primary mode of dealing with that which is judged with such negative terms. To use the language of mythology, the current model of mental health/illness is a martial perspective. Martial, from Mars, the Greek Ares, the god of war. What was in the 1980s a war against drugs is today a war against mental illness using drugs as its weaponry. Moreover, since “illness” is not only judged, but moralized, the attack on mental illness is nothing short of a holy war, a crusade. Destroy the illness to regain the Holy Land of the mind in order to restore us to health, to well-being, to wholeness.

Ah, wholeness. And so with wholeness we find ourselves not too far afield from the crusade, for as James Hillman, “father” of archetypal psychology says, our western Judeo-Christian monotheistic heritage is exclusionary by nature as a “monotheistic psychology,” a singleness of mind, and “is also immensely damaging to our aim of shifting perspectives away from the ego as the sole center of consciousness” (Hillman, The Myth of Analysis, 264-5). To be healthy is to be whole, says our linguistic fantasies. When I am whole, I am truly my Self. Or so I might tell myself. A modern preoccupation with wholeness, with Self, and thereby with health, suggests Hillman, is a “Judeo-Protestant monotheism in psychological language” (265). Health, that is, is a construct informed by a monotheistic perspective: it is a “theological fantasy” (265).

As such, I am not hard-pressed to see the connection between a monotheistically constructed sense of self/health/wholeness and the moralistically constructed limitations placed on our understanding of mental illness. But is mental illness really the enemy?

“The Americanization of Mental Illness”

While America would take charge over psychology during WWII, American psychology has not released its command. In conducting my research for this post, I came across an insightful article published in the New York times titled “The Americanization of Illness” by Ethan Waters which has particular import for the discussion at hand. Rather than synopsize the article, I include here just a few quotes (adding emphasis at certain points) and recommend reading the article in its entirety.

“We have for many years been busily engaged in a grand project of Americanizing the world’s understanding of mental health and illness. We may indeed be far along in homogenizing the way the world goes mad.”

“…mental illnesses are not discrete entities like the polio virus with their own natural histories…mental illnesses have never been the same the world over (either in prevalence or in form) but are inevitably sparked and shaped by the ethos of particular times and places.”

“’We might think of the culture as possessing a ‘symptom repertoire’ — a range of physical symptoms available to the unconscious mind for the physical expression of psychological conflict,’ Edward Shorter, a medical historian at the University of Toronto, wrote in his book “Paralysis: The Rise and Fall of a ‘Hysterical’ Symptom.”

For more than a generation now, we in the West have aggressively spread our modern knowledge of mental illness around the world. We have done this in the name of science, believing that our approaches reveal the biological basis of psychic suffering and dispel prescientific myths and harmful stigma. There is now good evidence to suggest that in the process of teaching the rest of the world to think like us, we’ve been exporting our Western ‘symptom repertoire’ as well.

“…we’ve been changing not only the treatments but also the expression of mental illness in other cultures. Indeed, a handful of mental-health disorders — depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anorexia among them — now appear to be spreading across cultures with the speed of contagious diseases.”

“Western ideas did not simply obscure the understanding of anorexia in Hong Kong; they also may have changed the expression of the illness itself.”

What is being missed…is a deep understanding of how the expectations and beliefs of the sufferer shape their suffering.”

“Mental-health professionals in the West, and in the United States in particular, create official categories of mental diseases and promote them in a diagnostic manual that has become the worldwide standard.”

I could go on…I will not, for what I see here is just another example of American colonization and, as such, arrogance. We know what is right. We know what is wrong. We have our manuals that tell us what is right and what is wrong. So you should just believe us because we are smarter than you are. We have our science after all. And as we do so, as we bring you our science, as you become like us, we will infect you as we transform you–we will give you our depressions, our ADD’s, our obsessions and addictions while we eradicate yours.

After all, mental illness, as we all know, is not normal–it may be, as we have labeled it, deviant or (uh-oh) abnormal. It may prevent us from functioning “normally” in society. Now here is a can of worms. Yes, I know and I fully understand that mental illness can and does change the way one functions and/or behaves. The suggestion of what is normal is, of course, a social construction. As being a social construction, the “definition” of normal thus has economic and political connotations as well. If you don’t function “normally” after all, you might not be able to hold down a job (let alone even get a job). And if you can’t get a job you can’t pay your taxes or buy the stuff our consumerist culture pushes you to buy. And if you’re not buying, you’re not contributing to our economy. How un-American.

Who defines normal? When it comes to mental health, the DSM, published by the American Psychiatric Association, a “medical specialty society… the voice and conscience of modern psychiatry” (APA website), is the standard. Scientists. The voice and conscience of modern psychiatry–a psychology without psyche, without soul, defining for us what is normal and what is not normal.

Normal, form the Latin norma, an architectural tool used to create angles–nice and neat angles. And don’t forget about the best angle when constructing a building–the right angle. Put two right angles together and what do you have? A square. A nice little box. And in creating a nice normal, orderly society what do you need? Little boxes stacked one on top of the other. Nice and neat and tidy. You can keep tabs on and control them better that way.

I don’t know about you, but my life experience is anything but nice and neat and tidy–it has been a wonderful and sometimes scary mix of experiences, experiences that don’t often “fit” together nice and neat. Things shift and change. It is in many ways a mess–a lovely, lovely mess of disparate parts that don’t always fit together as a cohesive whole. I guess that would, by definition, make me unhealthy, unwhole. That is, ill.

If that be the case, then let me honor my illness, my abnormality, me deviance. Let it inform the way I see the world.

Re-Visioning Mental Health


As stated above, mental illnesses may be alternately qualified as being abnormal or deviant. They may also be called “psychopathologies.” This particular term has deep import in the aim of re-visioning mental health, for when we break up the word into its constituent parts, we find: “psyche-pathos-logos”–soul, suffering, language/speech. Mental illnesses, in other words, are the means by which psyche (soul) communicates its sufferings. Such is a starting point for James Hillman’s archetypal psychology, a perspective

“free from the positivism of the clinical and empirical traditions that have come down to the twentieth century from the nineteenth-century scientistic, materialistic medicine, its views of health, disease, and the power-hero role of the physician” (Hillman, Archetypal Psychology: A Brief Account, 50).

For Hillman, psychopathology is inherent to psychic reality. And since inherent, it is necessary. Let me pause for just a moment and recall the earlier discussion of terms, where health and illness were understood in terms of martial conflict, the holy war. Here, in Hillman’s re-visioning, mental illness is not an enemy, it is absolutely essential to psyche.

As implied in the above discussion regarding health and wholeness, Hillman is critical of a monotheistic psychology, a psychology, he maintains, that identifies the personality with the ego. His personality theory counters the prevailing ego-based norm in favor of a “polytheistic psychology” which accounts for the “innate diversity” of the human experience (my above mentioned lovely lovely mess) and “is necessary for reawakening reflective consciousness” (43) while “the sacred and sacrificial dimension is given a place of main value” (44). Hillman’s polytheistic perspective frees the soul “from ego domination” (44), thus returning psyche to psychology.

The gods of Hillman’s polytheistic psychology are not meant to be taken literally (see my previous post “Who are the gods anyway?” for a more in depth treatment of the gods), but understood as metaphors, as images, as archetypal backdrops to our experiences, rooting them, in turn in that dimension of the sacred. But how do we know to which god our experience belongs? A starting point is our psychopathologies, for Hillman takes his cue from CG Jung who said: “The gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus…” (Jung qtd. in Hillman, 47).

“The link between Gods and diseases,” writes Hillman, “is double: on the one hand, giving the dignity of archetypal significance and divine reflection to every symptom whatsoever, and on the other hand, suggesting that myth and its figures may be examined for patterns of pathology” (47)

What was that? Dignity given to the symptom? To our mental illnesses?

Yes, because they are the gods, and as gods, archetypal, sacred and thus worthy of dignity and respect. And in being worth of such, are to be listened to. Thus archetypal psychology asks: What does my pathology want from me? What does my mental illness want from me?

In challenging medical models of health and wholeness, the identification of the individual personality with ego, Hillman, in what might be considered a startling move, suggests “multiple personality is humanity in its natural condition” (62). Sure it might sound weird, but only when one approaches a personality theory rooted in a monotheistic psychology which emphasizes ego.

What happens to me when I identify myself by such limitations? My illnesses mean something is wrong with me. I do things that “just aren’t me.” (How many times have you heard a public figure do/say something outrageous, then backtrack and say “that wasn’t me?”) Sure it was. The response stems from an identity based in ego. The other “parts” of the personality have no place in a monotheistic, ego-centric psychology.

But when I let go of identification with ego, the interior world of psyche opens up and I realize “I” am composed of many–multiple personalities–the archetypes, the gods. Free from the confines of ego, from the fantasy of wholeness, I realize some dynamic of the life of soul is playing itself out through me, through you, through my diseases, my mental illnesses. My job is to listen, and to honor.

In my Religious Studies classes I teach about perspective and to teach about perspective, I use the metaphor of colored sunglasses. I have red pairs, blue pairs, green pairs, and purple pairs. Each time I put on a different pair, the world looks different to me. I see things differently. Maybe I see something more clearly with the red sunglasses on than I do when wearing purple. Shifting perspectives allows us to see different things.

As such, while critical of the predominant model of psychology as I have been, this is not to deny its worth. But what I would like to encourage is the understanding that such is just one perspective. It is not the end all be all truth. It is just one perspective. Hillman’s archetypal psychology is another perspective and when one puts on those sunglasses, mental illnesses look different–they are no longer the enemy, they are no longer to be killed.

To engage in Hillman’s perspective requires depth–looking at things deeply, staying with them, in order to listen to them and come to understand their “wants.” It requires the patience necessary to pause and to look, and to look closely. Perhaps these are qualities less valued in today’s fast paced globalizing society. We no longer have time for these depths. But these depths are where soul is recovered (See also “Who is Hades anyway?” for an exploration of soul and depth).

Freud’s psychoanalysis began with hysteria. Jung began with schizophrenia. Hillman’s paradigm is depression, a starting point which has also provided him a pointed critique “upon social and medical conventions that do not allow the vertical depth of depressions” (51). “We no longer have time for these depths” I just wrote. We don’t bother with them. We avoid them. And when we have them, we are prescribed drugs to manage them, again, so we can avoid them. (Again I refer to “Who is Hades anyway?” in relation to the avoidance of the depths).

In compulsively avoiding these depths, perhaps it is no coincidence that, mood disorders, particularly depression, is the number 1 “offender” when it comes to those diagnosed with mental illness.

When one seeks help for a mental illness, one is “diagnosed” with such and such disorder. When diagnosed, I am inclined to say “I have ADD” or “I have depression.” I…HAVE. The mental illness, in other words, is conceived of as a possession. A possession of the ego. It is “my depression.” Once a possession, it is no surprise that modern society has turned it into a commodity–a commodity. According to, pharmaceutical companies made 23 billion dollars off the sales of drugs designed to combat mental illness in 2012 alone. Again, I refer to the economic import of mental illness. (By the way the GDP per capita for the Democratic Republic of Congo, the poorest nation in the world, is 348 dollars)

And as a side, I recently found that in order to teach my son to drive (to be in the passenger seat while he takes the wheel) I have to officially sign a government document detailing what, if any, mental illnesses I have been treated for or diagnosed with. On many job applications I have seen of late, I am required to do the same. Therein an example of political interest in mental illness.

But back to the notion of diagnosis–diagnosis, from the Greek dia (through) and gingoskein (knowledge). We give those who have paid enough money to go to school long enough the authority to diagnose us with something. They give us something–a name to our illnesses, to our psychopathologies. And they write us a name of a drug on a piece of paper. We pay them for a product. Hearkening back to “The Americanization of Mental Illness,” we pay them for a product our society has created.

But we may look at “diagnosis” in another way by looking at the word itself: knowledge through. It is our mental illnesses through which we see the world, through which we know the world. They are our colored sunglasses. The world looks differently if you “have” depression, bipolar disorder, addictions, etc. But when we understand that such are socially constructed in particular historical circumstances, we can learn about the nature of the soul’s suffering at any given point. And when we know, we can begin to change, begin to heal.

So give voice to your illnesses, give voice to psyche that, it seems to me these days, is crying out to be heard. All we need to do is look around and see the rates of so called disorders on the rise and, as Ethan Waters states, on the move, spreading globally as long as the American approach to mental illness spreads its colonizing tendrils. Psyche cries. She wants to be heard.

I again quote Hillman:

“The true revolution (in behalf of soul) begins in the individual who can be true to his or her depression” (52).

I would extend that to all mental illness.

So go with your psychopathologies, give voice to them, seek help with them with those who know how to guide you to the depths so you can contribute to the revolution on behalf of soul, of psyche, and return soul to the world.

In honor of Mental Health Awareness month, if you or anyone you know has been diagnosed and/or treated with mental illness, please click “like,” reblog, share on facebook or any other social media at your use and remember:


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