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Mad In America

The Myth of Mental Wellness: Can We Really Improve our “Mental Health”?

Mental health is nothing more than a concept. It’s not only not a medical field; it can’t even qualify as a science.

By Lawrence Kelmenson, MD

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

I previously showed, by process of elimination, that “mental illness” is nothing but a subjective label for coping styles that are disruptive to society (below I’ll show how this is true for various specific mental illnesses). If so then mental health, the flip side of the same mental illness coin, must be merely a subjective label for coping styles that are constructive to society. A process-of-elimination dissection of the World Health Organization’s mental health definition confirms this:

It first says that mental health is a state of well-being, but since health is a synonym for wellness, this doesn’t explain what it means. It then says that it’s the reaching of one’s potential and the ability to cope with stress. But the Parkland School Shooter attained his life goal of being a ‘professional school shooter,’ which was his way of coping with stress, yet he’s not deemed mentally healthy. So this really means: reaches one’s potential and copes in ways that are productive to society. It then restates this overtly, by saying that mental health means working and contributing to society. So that’s all it is.

Madness (psychosis) must be a concept that’s in the eye of the beholder rather than an objective reality, since we call people crazy if they disagree with our beliefs. For example, you may judge me crazy for proposing this. Belief systems (and behaviors associated with them) in one culture in one era may be judged crazy in another culture or time; this is known as cultural relativism. For example, animal sacrifice used to be normal practice, but today it would be perceived as madness.

Psychosis can’t refer to beliefs not based in reality, since most of us have such beliefs (political, philosophical, spiritual, ethical, moral, etc.). Only those that don’t adhere to any norms or customs of society, and thus only make sense to one member but are incoherent to all others, are judged to be delusional. For example, someone driving on the left side of the road will be perceived as a crazy driver in the US, but one who drives on the right side in England will be called crazy. So madness must be purely a subjective label given to those who, by coping non-conformingly, disrupt society

ADHD is also likely just an arbitrary concept, since it’s more often perceived by older parents and teachers (perhaps since they have less stamina). It’s perceived more by certain ethnicities and nations despite its ‘symptoms’ occurring equally among these, and also perceived more by moms than dads.

Its core criteria of aimless activity, inattention and impulsivity used to be considered aspects of normal, outgrowable childhood immaturity that we all start life with. They’re thus easily perceived in all young kids (especially if parents constantly hear: “ADHD is a common treatable disease that blocks kids from succeeding”), since they’ve not yet been raised and so are only starting to mature. Similarly, bipolar criteria (moodiness/temper) used to be viewed as normal, resolvable adolescent turmoil and are easily perceived in all teens, since they’re also still being raised and still maturing.

This explains why the youngest kids in class are the ones most often labeled. ‘Diagnosing’ is supposed to only occur when such traits are age-inappropriate, belying that they’re indeed signs of immaturity. So ADHD and bipolar disorder are just labels that can apply to all kids, whose normal traits are likely often draining and disruptive to today’s busy, tired, role-juggling teachers and parents

Sadness and anxiety are unavoidable emotions; so they’re also normal experiences. Their degree is unmeasurable, since we don’t have sadness/anxiety meters that can be objectively read. It’s thus measured subjectively (by self-report). People can easily misperceive their feelings as worse than other people’s, especially when continually bombarded by propaganda about sadness (“depression”) being a severe, disabling,under-diagnosed illness tormenting hundreds of millions. Rewards like sick role status can unconsciously condition them to exaggerate their misery. And just as people may cry on the inside yet smile on the outside due to social/financial pressure to appear happy, others may feel okay on the inside yet cry on the outside due to pressure to seem sad.

The presence of so-called depressive symptoms doesn’t imply more suffering. For example, if people withdraw and stay in bed, we’ll judge them to be very sad. But taking breaks from society after being hurt is just one way to adapt to it. So why are only those who cope this way arbitrarily perceived as depressed/ill? The only explanation is their lower social productivity. If they instead cope by throwing themselves into their job, we’ll perceive them to be happy, or mentally healthy, since they’re being socially productive.

Happiness is illusory and transient anyway; joy is felt as a result of resolving tension. As philosophers from St.Augustine to Rousseau to Eysenck have noted, it fades once we get used to it. The lower the low, the higher the high, and vice versa. This is known as hedonic adaptation, or the hedonic treadmill. It explains why lottery winners and paralyzing injury victims reported reverting to baseline happiness levels within months of initial elation/sadness. This 1978 study would have had different results if done after depression became a thing in the ’80s — sadness due to loss or disappointment is no longer perceived as a normal reaction that one can get through in time. Its perception as a crippling affliction that forever controls one’s destiny/identity is now imbedded in our culture.

Mental health is nothing more than a concept. It’s not only not a medical field; it can’t even qualify as a science. Its domain is only value judgments, abstract ideas, and subjective perceptions. Its hypotheses are untestable. Its measurements are so arbitrary that they can be easily fudged to prove any theory. It thus belongs in the humanities, along with philosophy or ethics. Faith in it is as psychotic as any of the beliefs that it labels psychotic.

Seeing it as real involves judging people to be better off coping one way than another. This would be like proclaiming that certain types of music are good for you while others are bad for you, and pressuring outliers to seek musical health services instead of allowing ‘to each his own’. Placebos and sedatives could be prescribed with similar ‘therapeutic’ results as from mental health services.

So happiness businesses such as psych or alternative meds, cognitive therapy, self-help programs, coaching/counseling, mindfulness/holistic/nutritional healing, and shiny new cars or other items advertised as happiness-inducing, can’t really improve ‘mental wellness’. All they do is abnormalize normal human experiences, and change coping methods into ones that can increase both society’s efficiency (in the short-run) and their businesses’ profits. Since our economy is consumer-based, coping by buying happiness products and services itself helps society thrive; it may account for most U.S. purchases.

But it can’t stop life’s tensions from recurring. We are all driven to find ways to adapt — some are called ill and others healthy, but they all work in some way or else we wouldn’t use them. Mental health, like mental illness, is a myth. They’re two sides of the same coin, and it’s a wooden nickel.

Originally published at on May 9, 2018.



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Mad In America

Mad In America

Mad in America’s mission is to serve as a catalyst for rethinking psychiatric care in the United States and around the world.