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Milli, Darren, and the "Mental Disease" Myth

Milli and Darren used to be boyfriend and girlfriend when they were around 14. As of this writing they are 15 and16, respectively. They have both self-harmed and both tried to kill themselves. I met Darren first. When Milli told me she also tried to kill herself. I was not surprised. I have seen this many times before in suicidal teens. This gives me more reason to disagree with what I call the "myth" that teens like Milli and Darren have some kind of "mental disease", something which many -- I'd guess even the vast majority of -- psychologists and psychiatrists are trying to convince people of. They think it is something like catching a cold. They don't think it has much, if anything, to do with a person's parents, the school system, or society. But people from all kinds of families tend to catch colds at about the same frequency, do they not? So if depression and the urge to stop one's emotional/psychological pain with self-injury is just the result of a "disease", then why do teens who are depressed, self-harming and suicidal tend to date each other at levels which are far above random chance?

If my memory serves, I have never meet a teen who was depressed, suicidal and self-harming who was dating someone who was popular in school, or someone who was what we could call a "conformist." They always date the teens who are laughed at, made fun of, and labeled as "weird" and "crazy." But it seems to me the depressed, non-conformists and the popular, conformists would both stand an equal chance of catching a cold. So to me this is more evidence that these "diseases" and "disorders" don't just strike the population at random, like lightening might strike someone in a crowd. And from my many talks with many teens in many countries, I don't accept the argument that it is the disease which causes all the characteristics we see in the depressed, suicidal teens.

This is a little like the chicken and the egg question. Did the teen's mysterious "genetic flaws" lead to their being made fun of, labeled, invalidated, etc? Or is it more that their family started invalidating them, failed to meet their emotional and psychological needs, and then the school system, filled with too many resentful children and teens who actually enjoy intentionally hurting their peers, carried on the emotional abuse and neglect? My conclusion is that it is the latter.

I am finding more and more examples which support my belief about this. It is a little like the time I asked a psychologist who told me she worked in an alcohol treatment facility. We were talking about whether alcoholism was a "disease." I asked her if she had ever met an alcoholic who did not have some dysfunction in their family while growing up. She said, "Actually, now that I think about it, no, I haven't." So this would tell me that first, no one in all her years of training had even suggested this connection, and second, alcoholism is not a disease and never was. It is a sensitive person's attempt to stop their emotional pain.

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The emotional pain for both alcoholics and suicidal teens is coming from other people in society. It is a result of the social system itself. This reminds me of Erich Fromm's book "The Sane Society" in which he basically said our society is not sane. His book foreshadowed what we are seeing now in the rising levels of teen self-harm and suicide.

Here is a quote from Fromm

The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.

Fromm also says this

Mental health cannot be defined in terms of the "adjustment" of the individual to his society, but, on the contrary, that it must be defined in terms of the adjustment of society to the needs of man, of its role in furthering or hindering the development of mental health.


What this means in terms of teen "mental health" problems, is that the problem is actually that society has failed to meet the emotional and psychological needs of these teens.(1) The school system, for example, has not "adjusted" to meet the needs of intelligent, sensitive, non-conforming and often, rebellious, teens. Saying the teens have a "mental disease" is sending us on a wild goose chase and wasting resources which could be better spent on addressing the problems in schools and society.

The social system simply does not place a high value on the feelings of children and teens. The most sensitive ones cannot handle this and they naturally look for whatever means they can to stop their emotional pain. And the most intelligent ones create what I call a lethal belief system in which they typically see themselves as:

A) deserving of pain and punishment (2)
B) selfish for thinking of their own feelings
D) overly responsible for the feelings of others

The people around them plant these ideas in their heads, then the teens look for evidence to confirm their worst beliefs about themselves and eventually form a lock tight case against themselves. The more intelligent ones seem to do this at a younger age. This becomes their reference point for interpreting their place in the world around them. One 13 year old told me, for example, that it was her job to keep her parents happy. Thus she believes she is "helping" them by allowing them to take her anger out on her. Yet being helpful in this way has not brought her happiness.

In fact, each time I talk to her I wonder if it will be the last.


1 - For an explanation of "emotional and psychological needs" see http://eqi.org/ei_ed52.htm

2 - In fact I have been told by teens that when they self-harm they are punishing themselves for something they think did wrong