Continuing with the series I started a couple of days ago; another aspect of mental health that I believe to be very important is the topic of morality. Now, morality gets almost no mention whatsoever in psychology textbooks and again I’m highly suspicious of this. The suggestion here is that morality is somehow outside the purview of psychology, however, I would argue that morality, or its lack, is actually at the heart of a lot of what we call mental illness. Consider how many times you hear about criminals pleading insanity in court to justify their crimes. Psychologists are often brought in as expert witnesses to give weight to such claims. Yet, why the lack of mainstream academic discussion among psychologists about morality and it’s relationship to mental health?
The first issue is of course defining what morality is. In the simplest sense, morality is about doing the right thing based on a set of rules. There are two major competing schools of thought about what rules count as moral: one that is very popular in academic writing and trendy social circles, and the other which is considered by many to be old fashioned, out of date, and ridiculous. The popular definition is that morality is socially defined, it is a set of rules that have no objective basis to them, they are just adhered to by people because of traditional and political authority. This is subjective morality, while the supposedly out dated version of morality is called objective morality and the argument here is that morals are not mere popular whims, but come from reason and are universal.
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One of the infuriating things about cracking open most authorised textbooks on psychology is that they are preoccupied with defining abnormal psychology: narcissism, sociopathy, depression, anxiety, borderline, bi-polar, dissociative personality disorder, and so on. An endless litany of things that could be wrong with someone. Curiously they don’t often, if ever, make positive claims as to what mental health is. What is a mentally healthy person? How does a mentally healthy person behave? The reasons for this are fun to speculate: maybe they don’t know, or maybe the mental health profession is full of narcissistic, autistic, and other abnormal people and so they can’t describe mental health themselves, or maybe human nature is so varied there isn’t truly a healthy condition, just lots of shades of mental grey?
So, I’m going to make sure to write about the few things which I’m confident fall in the category of mentally healthy processes and behaviours. Today, I want to write about trust, and hopefully illustrate why being able to trust is an essential component of overall mental health.
Trust is a complex subject because it isn’t only a philosophical concept, it is actually also a feeling mediated by the neurotransmitter oxytocin. Because of this trust is not a simple concept to nail down, but for this article let’s keep it simple: trustworthiness is the quality of a person/animal/thing to display consistently beneficial behaviours, and therefore “to trust” refers the capacity to bond with a trustworthy person/animal/thing. Johnathon is trustworthy when it comes to turning up to work on time, being non-violent, and moderating his alcohol consumption, but don’t leave money lying about in view because Johnathon is notorious for pinching every unattended penny he lays eyes on. Mary is trustworthy when it comes to money, but is almost never at work on time, and should not be trusted when drinking with young men. Johnathon trusts Mary with his wallet and is not disappointed, but when Mary trusts Johnathon with her purse, she’s a few dollars less wealthy than before.
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Agency is a philosophical term that refers to one’s ability to act in a given situation. When discussing the nature of free will and responsibility, it is important to be mindful of how much agency a person has. If there’s an electrical fault in your house and you’re alone, there might not be anything you can do about it. If you’re a trained electrician, there might be a great deal you could do to fix the problem. However, being knowledgeable about electronics might not be enough if your tools are at your workplace. Thus, agency depends on both having the knowledge and having the means. A person with electrical training and tools has full agency over the problem of the electrical fault, whereas a person with no training and no tools has no direct agency over their electrical problems. They will have to pay someone who does have agency in this situation to fix it. Despite sounding so simple, problems with agency account for a lot of drama in relationships. This article will discuss a healthy sense of agency and then compare it to unhealthy perceptions of agency such as hyper-agency and hypo-agency. Continue reading →
Imagine an ordinary porcelain bowl sitting on a table in front of you. There’s nothing special about this bowl. It is plain without any distinguishing features. There are thousands, if not millions, of bowls like this in the world. They are useful, one can put rice in it, a salad, water, fruit or any other number of things. Despite it being useful, it would be odd if anyone missed it should it fall to the floor and smash to pieces. The bowl has utility, but it doesn’t have value. One day a tattoo artist was feeling bored and decided to paint an original and intricate art work depicting Norse gods from an epic saga. Now something peculiar has happened: the bowl that was once so ordinary that its destruction would have been inconsequential has gained a new quality: value. It’s still just as useful as a bowl, but now it requires more protection, care, and respect. This bowl that was once so ordinary could now sit comfortably in a museum or an art gallery. It has become important not just because of its usefulness for holding objects, but because it has acquired a value through the beautiful art work now inscribed on it. People are similar, they can be useful, but they have a value that extends beyond their utility. Surprisingly enough, an incomplete understanding of these terms can actually lead to suicidal thoughts.
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Last night I was chatting to a friend about depression. As someone who is still recovering from depression she kept referring to it as “her weakness” which bothered me a little. This lead to her sharing with me a perspective on depression she had encountered recently: that depression was a method by which nature would rid a tribe of weaker members. Presumably it worked something like this: a person who couldn’t meet the expectations placed on them by their tribe would develop depression and end their own life so that only the strong members would survive. Thus it is a form of eugenics programmed into our psyche to effectively off ourselves for the benefit of the rest of the tribe. Now, I am trained as a biologist and such a genetic trait is unlikely to be passed on via natural selection because it actually lowers the probability of an individual passing on their genetics. Such genes usually die out quickly. However, this got me thinking about something: if so many people have the potential to get depression – why would such a trait be preserved by natural selection? What survival advantage does a propensity for depression actually have? Here is my case on why depression is helpful rather than harmful.
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I know someone, a man who is deeply unhappy. He is miserable and, judging from how well he takes care of his body, he is someone who does not care if he ruins his health and dies early. He has suffered from depression for years and often talks about how he will overcome it. However, I have not seen any real effort on his part to overcome his depression. Despite his stated intentions to get better, I cannot help but wonder if maybe there is something important that he is getting from depression, something so valuable that he does not want to take the risk of losing it? What benefit of depression is he getting? What incentive does he have in fervently avoiding anything that would help improve his condition?
In many cases, depression is a result of fighting a battle that cannot be won. Trying to get meaning out of a meaningless job, trying to appease an abuser, trying to change a person into someone else—these are common examples of unwinnable battles people fight for years that drive them into depression or “learned helplessness”. In essence, the problem with these cases of depression is not that the person has given up, but that they have not given up. If they gave up on their impossible task, they could focus their energy on something far more productive and likely to fulfil them. Continue reading →