Mental Illness is a Reference Problem

It is axiomatic in clinical lore that mental illness is a reference problem arising from having formulated too narrow a field of reference, one’s decision-making guided by internal whims and fancies with little or no concern for external validation. In recent months I have “discoursed” re the extreme close-mindedness of the Republican Party in my country and yesterday’s post might make one think I had them in mind. Well, kind of, but only “kind of” for if I would deign to call the Republican Party “mentally ill” then I would be revealing my own “mental illness.” For they are not “mentally ill” though they do have a “mentally ill” dimension in their collective psyche just as do all groups, including the Democratic Party. This “mentally ill dimension” is the inordinate need to maintain and perpetuate group identity to the exclusion of any long-term, broad-based, inclusive agenda.

All groups function like individuals and have a need for homeostasis and go to great ends to achieve this objective. And this is good, if it is not carried to an extreme. When homeostasis becomes an inordinate concern for a group they will become excessively concerned with boundaries and self-definition. Inevitably a need for purity will emerge and one will see a tendency to threaten or exclude anyone who departs from the party line. This is reflects a profound insecurity in its collective psyche—the aforementioned homeostasis is perceived to be very tenuous and great energy is invested in shoring up its precarious internal sense of identity. The reinforcements employed to shore up this tenuous identity become profoundly important as without them the fear that “the center will not hold” and a beast will come “slouching toward Bethlehem.” (See W. B. Yeats poem at conclusion)

The key is for homeostasis…or the bedrock of identity…to be based on some belief system that finds unity in a whole larger than oneself. This belief system will allow the group identity to be maintained but without such inordinate emphasis that the larger context of which the group is part will be de-emphasized or even rejected. Such an impoverished identity does not see…and feel…its connection with the larger context (i.e., “the world”) as it cannot forego its pristine, private, “unique” view of self and opts to live in an autistic shell. It makes me think of Hamlet who pined, under his great duress, to “flee to a nutshell and there be king of infinite spaces.”

The following poem by William Butler Yeats conveys the terror of a group or individual who experiences existential insecurity and fears that “the center will not hold” and will fall prey to “the beast” of chaos:


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


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