Saturday, January 12, 2013

The mentally sick animal

Norwegian professor of philosophy Lars Fredrik Svendsen is concerned about the gradual lowering of diagnostic thresholds in psychiatry. He worries that if this trend continues, being normal could become an unachievable goal – like being a supermodel. He thinks that some common human features – like grieving after the loss of a loved one – could be medicalized, and the thought that we are mentally ill (as opposed to considering ourselves as resilient, healthily adapted individuals) could add insult to injury. Why has this trend taken shape over the last few decades, if it is so detrimental?

One common explanation is that the accelerated diagnosing of all sorts of psychiatric “disorders” has created a multi-trillion bonanza for the pharmaceutical industry. I am normally skeptical of conspiracy theories. But I dearly wish I could believe this one – because the alternative is so much worse. It was formulated 125 years ago by another philosopher who called man “the sick animal,” and attributed this sickness to man’’s “taming.” He may have extrapolated from his own experience as he was gradually succumbing to insanity. But his diagnosis later became a major theme in Freudian analysis, and in many other theories questioning the mental health of Western “civilization.”

There is, however, a variety of conditions which preclude the individuals diagnosed with them from recognizing they have a problem – for example, various forms of clinical and subclinical delusional thinking. Who knows – perhaps embracing these could help resolve the problem identified by Svendsen – and by his deeply miserable predecessor.