MENTAL HEALTH: THE #1 MISTAKE IN OUR USUAL APPROACH
Is there a better approach to “mental health”?
This might seem like a strange question.
Hardly anybody argues that our current approach is the peak of perfection and couldn’t possibly get any better. But is there a chance that our current approach to mental health, broadly speaking, is at least partly flawed, right from the start?
“Perhaps in time
the so-called Dark Ages
will be thought of as including our own.”
- Georg C. Lichtenberg
Or, to be more positive: is there a chance that our approach to issues like depression, anxiety, and inner strength in general could be better? If so, what would that look like?
Here’s one humble suggestion, offered in the spirit of a friend you’re having a good drink with, and who might be either dead wrong or spot-on.
In a nutshell:
We often tend to see these issues as “component problems” instead of “everything problems.”
We treat them as isolated symptoms instead of integrated pieces of a bigger picture. Especially when it comes to the really Big Picture, as in The Big Questions of life.
We often tend to treat these matters as if we’re changing a flat tire on a bicycle.
A better approach, though, could be to treat them as if they’re spider webs.
Sometimes, a problem isn’t just the problem itself, but how we approach the problem.
This might take a little explaining.
An “everything problem” is a difficult problem that’s connected to other difficult problems.
A “component problem” is a problem that’s contained. It’s not connected to other difficult problems.
A component problem is often straightforward. For example, a bike tire goes flat. The solution? Replace the tire. Problem solved.
That’s how component problems work. There’s a system, and the trouble in the system lies in a single dysfunctional ingredient in that system, and the solution lies in replacing that bad part.
We often want to swap out depression, anxiety, stress or an addiction like it’s a flat bike tire.
It’s understandable. After all, for many, this way of thinking is our default mode. It’s highly successful when tackling certain problems. With mental or psychological health, we naturally want a single tip, technique, pill, or insight that will “solve” whatever’s bugging us.
But this approach might sometimes be the wrong intellectual tool for this particular job. It might be like trying to use a screwdriver to hammer a nail, or a sledgehammer to drive a screw.
“Everything problems” don’t work like that.
An everything problem is more like a spider web.
A spider web is interconnected. Pull one strand of a spider web, and all the other strands get pulled along with it. No strand exists in isolation. No strand is a “separate component.” A web isn’t just a bunch of fragmented, isolated parts. It’s a whole system.
We could say it’s an “ecology,” an “emergent property” that’s “non-reducible,” or just something “holistic” or just “not fragmented.” Multiple puzzle pieces work together to form a single image.
It all points to the same dynamic where multiple elements are interconnected and interdependent. Anything that affects part of the web also affects the rest of the web.
We often assume psychological problems are component problems.
When it comes to things like depression, anxiety, addictions, relationship problems, and other “psychological health” matters, we often tend to think of them like bike tires. We tend to assume that they’re component problems. We want to just “swap them out.”
Take depression, for example.
Life might seem fine overall. But well, to be honest, there’s sometimes this little part called “depression.” We often want to keep “life” exactly the way it is, but just replace the “depression part.” We might try searching for the perfect blog post, meditation technique, or pill, for example, that surgically removes the depression part but leaves everything else untouched.
Again, this is totally understandable. It makes perfect sense to look for the easiest and most efficient solution possible. That said, if the “easiest” solution doesn’t actually solve the problem, it isn’t a real solution. It’s a distraction.
To be fair, those are much easier to market, sell, and make money from.
But problems don’t get solved when we search for magic silver bullets where none exist.
And in some situations, silver bullets don’t exist.
For example, addictions are good examples of everything problems.
The problem isn’t just a single, simple substance or habit.
Those substances or habits are connected up with certain relationships. And social networks. And lifestyles. And ways of thinking. And certain “games” in life, and philosophies of life. And definitions of happiness. And answers to “the meaning” problem and other existential riddles.
Addictions, in other words, are difficult problems that are interconnected with other difficult problems.
Or, take another illustration: depression:
From a psychologist who appreciates the complexities of the matter:
Sometime around age 14, Joey changed. He began showing symptoms of depression.
His parents and teachers tried to understand what was happening. Drugs? Puberty? The music he was listening to? No answers. They took him to a medical doctor. Once again, no answers. The doctor, however, did suggest that there might be a “chemical imbalance” that a course of antidepressant medications could correct.
Finally, they took him to a psychologist. Several sessions went nowhere. But eventually, during the fourth session, Joey asked this:
“If a guy knew that one of his parents was having an affair and he knew that if he told it would wreck his parents’ marriage and then there’d be a divorce and his whole life would be ruined, but his parents are arguing all the time anyways, do you think he should just act as if he doesn’t know, even if it’s all he ever thinks about…and it’s driving him crazy?”
- excerpt from Hand-Me-Down Blues by Michael Yapko
No magic pill existed, or ever will exist, that would genuinely cure a strain of “depression” like Joey’s.
No approach that prioritized the role of Joey’s brain chemistry, genes, or “chemical imbalances” would be helpful. He doesn’t necessarily have self-esteem problems, he doesn’t need praise, and to all appearances, he isn’t being bullied, oppressed, or silenced. Even if he worked hard to train his thinking in general from “negative” to “positive” (ala cognitive behaviorism, one of the most respected forms of mainstream therapy) - this wouldn’t necessarily have drilled down to the level of what was really going on with him.
So, what was actually going on with him? It was something like a life-or-death grapple with a profoundly difficult existential riddle. It was a problem most full-grown adults would have struggled to handle. He was carrying an immense weight in the form of a moral dilemma with so clear resolution. He was tasked with a burden he could neither carry well nor throw off. It was a koan given to him not by a Zen master, but by life.
This is the area mainstream psychology often avoids.
It’s messy. It’s heavy. It involves matters of right and wrong. It’s not easy to shrink-wrap or sell. A decent chunk of conventional, mainstream, materialistic psychology seems to have no idea how to handle situations like this, steers people away from them and toward more shallow waters, and winds up giving out advice that often amount to sugar-coated platitudes.
Yapko again said it well:
“...depression is not a single problem
with a single cause
and a single treatment.”
In other words, it’s an everything problem.
So, how do we approach everything problems?
How can we actually put this to use?
For starters, just being aware of this alternative way of looking at things can offer some relief.
Assuming that something is a component problem when it isn’t can be frustrating. It can lead to wasted time and energy spent searching for the all-important component that doesn’t exist. It can lead to wasted effort trying to tweak a particular ingredient just right – believing it’s the Master Control Panel – when it actually has no real effect.
It can be easy to assume that we just haven’t found the secret ingredient or adjusted the component to the precisely perfect setting. But there’s also a chance that this entire approach has wandered off the trail. There’s a chance that the actual problem is the search for the component itself.
The problem is that maybe it isn’t a component problem, but we’re treating it like one.
But if that’s the case, how do we approach an everything problem?
“When we try to pick out anything by itself,
we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
- John Muir
Sometimes, in order to solve certain things, you need to solve certain things. But other times, in order to solve anything, you have to solve everything.
Granted, that idea might seem a little bizarre. After all, sometimes it’s hard just to solve anything, much less everything. Isn’t that a recipe for taking on too much? What happened to breaking things down into bite-sized pieces?
That’s correct. Literally “solving everything” in the way we solve small things isn’t the way.
But this kind of overwhelm can be a good thing.
After all, if a difficult problem is connected to many other difficult problems, we can develop a healthy appreciation for the vast complexity of life. There’s a way we’re all “in over our heads.” But this realization can be a good thing, and the start of a better way of seeing things, according to some fundamental perspectives in both philosophy (“…philosophy begins in wonder…” – Plato) and spirituality (“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom…”) Us trying to understand the universe might be like a caterpillar trying to understand calculus. If we look closely, we can see that we’re utterly dependent on forces far beyond our own egos.
This can cause us to look in a different direction: “up,” instead of “down.”
Our default approach to problems is often reductionism instead of holism.
Component problems work through reductionism. We approach a situation (e.g. a bike), break it down into its component parts, find the buggy part (eg the tire), and fix it. Reductionism looks down. It works from greater to smaller. It assumes that fixing the lesser will “trickle up” to fix the greater.
Everything problems reverse that.
Instead of reductionism, call it “holism” (or “emergentism.”) This approach doesn’t necessarily look “down” for smaller, component parts that are buggy. It lies in looking up. It goes up a “holarchy,” and chain of wholes within wholes within wholes.
It lies in seeing ourselves as components in a larger system.
The “larger system” means working up the levels of complexity.
It lies in looking for the interconnections – even interconnections with other difficult problems – and welcoming them.
Instead of trying to focus on a single variable (brain chemistry, genes, dopamine levels, etc.), and getting frustrated by other variables that interfere (bad habits, relationships, ideas, etc.), this approach reverses the dynamic.
It not only accepts, but works to make use of these larger interconnections. It welcomes “interfering variables” and works instead to harness them and absorb their power. We can reverse them so they work for us instead of against us.
For example, take an episode of depression.
This approach would view depression as one component of a larger system. That system is interconnected with many other complex problems.
One example of just one chain of “interconnection” among many that are possible: “depression” can sometimes be “connected to” a sense of hopelessness.
“Hope” is a state of feeling optimistic about the future.
“Hopelessness” lacks that sense of optimism. The experience can be more like feeling “doomed.” A sense of hopelessness creates fertile ground for depression.
But hope for what, or hopeless about what? This sense of being hopeful or hopeless is directly connected to meaning in life. “Meaning in life” in this sense means, “what’s the point?” or “where is this all headed, ultimately?”
If one’s answer to the meaning in life question – of “where this is all headed” – is “nowhere important, or very good, ultimately” – then that kind of answer makes depression not just possible, but likely.
But a different (better) answer to the meaning of life can offer more hope, optimism, and strength, assuming it’s sincere. A valid, strong answer someone actually believes in – and not just pays lip service to – can offer hope, optimism, and strength, even with an unblinking, unflinching view of the hell we can sometimes go through in life, such as the harsh realities of suffering, old age, and death we all face.
Or, on the flip side: meaninglessness or a lack of meaning in life can make everything seem empty and pointless. This can happen even when everything on the surface – which is sometimes what hogs all the attention – seems like it should be “pleasant enough.”
In this sense, depression can be connected to the meaning of life.
That’s just one connection.
It’s the connection between a very down-to-earth, everyday, relatively common experience like depression and a Big Question – a major existential riddle - about the meaning of life.
There are plenty of others.
For example, depression can also be connected to ideas about “happiness.”
Someone might define happiness in a small, narrow, and even dysfunctional way. It’s a broad word, and there are plenty of ways to define it. But some answers are better than others.
For example, someone might assume that the only route to happiness lies in becomes a famous billionaire movie star.
Becoming a famous billionaire movie star isn’t easy. (It’s not easy for anyone, including famous millionaire movie stars.) But if this idea is really ingrained and run deep, it can result in a person losing hope of ever finding happiness. “Losing hope in ever finding happiness” can sometimes look an awful lot like “depression.”
What’s the solution in this case? Well, contrary to popular opinion, it doesn’t lie in successfully becoming a famous billionaire movie star.
This predicament is based on a single idea. One part of the answer, then, can lie in adjusting bad ideas. It could mean re-examining assumptions about what happiness really is and how it’s achieved. It can look a lot more like doing philosophy, or just “hard thinking.”
However it’s described, the solution to depression might sometimes seem to have nothing at all to do with “depression.”
These are just a few examples.
The point is, sometimes the problem isn’t solved directly.
Human nature is complicated.
This can mean that depression isn’t solved by attacking depression. Anxiety isn’t solved merely by attacked anxiety. Addictions aren’t solved by merely attacking addictions. Suicide isn’t prevented just by talking about suicide prevention. And so on.
Solutions to certain problems have to take the bigger picture into account.
This can sometimes mean attacking “the bigger picture” directly.
This can mean taking on existential riddles deliberately – squaring up with them, wrestling with them, and working to hone better responses to them.
Sometimes it can mean going a “level up” – to re-examine an entire worldview, or philosophy of life, or basic assumptions about The Big Questions. It can mean rethinking your entire life. Instead of avoiding an existential crisis at all costs, as we often do, it can mean turning around and facing it, eye-to-eye, and following the truth of that wherever it leads.
This takes courage. It can induce the occasional existential vertigo. But the occasional existential crisis can sometimes be a good thing. In the long run, it can sometimes be a necessary course correction. (It’s definitely preferable, ultimately, to avoiding an existential in order to stay on a wrong course.) Many who go through this kind of experience and claim to better profoundly better off after they’ve come out the other side.
So, there’s good reason for hope.
If this “everything” approach is on target, it can work. It can solve problems others can’t. That’s reason to be optimistic.
Just to be clear, this doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with component problems, or solving problems by way of reductionism. In certain situations, “the way down” can be highly effective, and we need it.
Reductionistic thinking works for bicycles. But a bicycle is a mechanical object composed of static parts. We, on the other hand, are the most complex creatures on the planet. Our approach should reflect this complexity.
We also need “the way up.”
If we add an approach for everything problems – a holistic approach that embraces the reality that we ourselves are components in larger systems – then we open up vast possibilities. Our range of options can broaden profoundly. There are times when reductionistic thinking seems to become exhausted, barren, and bankrupt. More of the same approach might produce the same lack of results.
But armed with both “the way down” and “the way up,” we’re better equipped to overcome whatever it is in the universe that wants to tear us down.
After all, our mental health and psychological fitness, in some ways, is everything. These areas often lie at the heart of day-to-day life and govern a great deal of our everyday experience.
With something this important, no avenue should be left to chance. Every possible lead should be pursued, and exhaustively.
Even if it leads to everything.