It’s often said that the other side of genius is madness, although it is more likely that the artistic lifestyle and not a psychological disorder causes afflictions like depression to affect artists ten times more often than the general population. [Hara Estroff Marano, “Genius and Madness”, Psychology Today, 5/7/07, https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200705/genius-and-madness]. Artists are the lucky madmen, even if they don’t always see it that way (and hence we lose them by their own hand far too frequently). At least they have a potentially positive outlet for their insanity, giving it form in a way that also produces something meaningful for the rest of us to appreciate. But then there’s the destructive side of madness, which not only destroys the madman but also everyone around him.
I read an article on The Gothamist website the other day [Rebecca Fishbein, “Study Says One in 5 New Yorkers Suffer from Depression, Mental Illness,” Gothamist Daily, November 13, 2015, http://gothamist.com/2015/11/13/mental_health_nyc_report.php] citing a new study by the NYC Health Department that concluded that there is a mental health “crisis” in NYC that takes a multi-billion-dollar toll on every aspect of society: schools, crime and prisons, homelessness, and of course the entire over-burdened health care system. I’d wager that it’s an even higher percentage than one in 5 but, because it’s so shameful to be mentally ill, people have devised ways to hide the craziness – at least most of the time – until the lid of the pressure cooker inevitably explodes. For instance, there’s a woman who works as a secretary at my law firm who wears eye liner so thick she resembles a cartoon bandit, scans the company trash for rag-baggy treasure (I’ve been told she’s a hoarder and, while I have no proof of this, it would not surprise me in the least) and talks to herself out loud in two different voices – her normal voice and a high, squeaky one. And yet she managed to convince someone in HR – probably more than one someone – that she was fit to work in a respectable law firm.
Mental illness manifests itself in drug addiction, or sexual obsession, or lashing out at others with varying degrees of violence, or, in its ultimate form, suicide. One can only hope that, if it gets to the point of such hopelessness, the sufferer doesn’t take anyone else with him (which of course does not take into consideration the pain he leaves behind in friends and family members who wonder what they could have done differently to save him).
But where does all this depression and mental illness come from? The Gothamist article follows on the heels of a report – featured on the November 6 episode of Real Time with Bill Maher – that middle-class whites (especially men) are dying in greater numbers at a younger age than at any time in recent history. [Angus Deaton & Anne Case, “Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century,” PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America), Sept. 17, 2015, http://intl.pnas.org/content/early/2015/10/29/1518393112.full.pdf] Bill Maher and his guest panelists had an interesting discussion about why white American men are drinking, drugging and otherwise propelling themselves to an early death at greater rates than in any other advanced country and at any time in the past 100 years. One guy on the panel (David Frum, conservative political pundit) said the higher death rates were due to the lack of religion and religious communities. The one woman on the panel, Jillian Melchior of the Independent Women’s Forum – who actually held her own with the men even though it was her first time on the show – agreed with Frum and pointed out that researchers have shown that there is a correlation between decreasing religiosity and more frequent self-imposed death (by way of drink, drugs and suicide) among white people. The third panelist, disgraced politician and infamous dick-pic-er, Anthony Wiener, and Bill Maher, who is zealously anti-organized religion, of course took the tack that religion has little to do with it and the rising mortality rates are due to white folks feeling more powerless than ever in the face of an oligarchy that has no respect for them except as pawns in a rich man’s game. Maher also referenced the “more pie for me” greed that drives a wedge between the 1 percent and the rest of us, with little hope (apart from the lottery) to rise out of the economic hole in which the middle class has found itself.
All of these explanations offer a little piece of truth, and there are quite a few rationales they didn’t mention – most significantly, that white male entitlement is being chipped away as the Caucasian Christian populace becomes even more of a minority in the world and historically oppressed groups are no longer content to remain quiet when faced with injustice. And, as epitomized by the farce that is Donald Trump, there’s rampant narcissism among this population: The world is supposed to revolve around ME, privileged white guy, but of course it doesn’t, so the privileged white guy lashes out in anger and impotence. There was an entertaining article on the Vanity Fair website the other day [Henry Alford, “Is Donald Trump Actually a Narcissist? Therapists Weigh In!”, Vanity Fair, 11/11/15, http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2015/11/donald-trump-narcissism-therapists?mbid=nl_1113_Daily&CNDID=36841864&spMailingID=8251663&spUserID=MTAyMTEyODI0NTc1S0&spJobID=801321721&spReportId=ODAxMzIxNzIxS0] that assessed Trump’s textbook narcissism. Clinical psychologist Ben Michaelis defined it thusly: “Narcissism is an extreme defense against one’s own feelings of worthlessness.” And who made little Donald feel so worthless that he developed such a full-blown narcissistic personality? Why, Daddy Trump, of course (and probably Granddaddy Trump before him, ad infinitum). [Another great quote from Michaelis: “He’s applying for the greatest job in the land, the greatest task of which is to serve, but there’s nothing about the man that is service-oriented. He’s only serving himself.”]
Mental illness is passed down through generations and the cycle needs to stop somewhere. It’s like domestic violence – the abuser’s father inevitably abused his mother, and his father’s father abused his grandmother, as far back as anyone can remember, even though no one ever questioned it because women were considered lesser beings and deemed to be little more than property until only about 100 years ago in this country. Women continue to be treated like second class citizens in other parts of the world, which is further evidence of the absurdity invoked by man’s religion that women have bought into with seemingly little resistance (although, to be fair, the subjugation has been deeply inculcated). Why would women willingly wear thick black burkas that cover everything but their eyes in 100-degree weather, or hold down little girls while they’re being mutilated so they can never enjoy sexual pleasure, or voluntarily sequester themselves when they menstruate because they’re “unclean” and force their daughters to do the same? Why, it’s because their mothers did it to them, and their mothers’ mothers, and so on. It’s not only men who perpetuate these inhumane attitudes; it’s also the women who have had these attitudes (sometimes literally) pounded into them for generations and have, regrettably, internalized it rather than fight back.
How can we put an end to the madness? I think it needs to start in school, both on an education basis and also from the perspective of screening for mental illness and dealing with it as soon as it’s discovered so we don’t end up with a monster like Adam Lanza, barely more than a boy himself, chillingly murdering children for reasons we will never comprehend. By law, all children must go to one school or another (and even the home-schooled need to check in with the State Board of Education), so it might be our best opportunity to reach as many people as possible to identify the mentally ill and help them before they destroy themselves and, perhaps, innocent others who are guilty of no crime other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Even more important than screening to unearth mental illness early is treating it effectively when it’s identified. Instead of wasting billions of pharmaceutical R&D dollars on helping men maintain their erections, we need to find better ways to treat – and cure – dysfunctions of the brain that cause human beings to snap and shoot up movie theaters and shopping malls and elementary schools, or to seek out and follow psychotic Svengalis who are shrewd enough to tap into those mental illnesses and cause impressionable and controllable young people – those most lacking in healthy identities, due to whatever mental illness may affect them – to become fanatical accomplices in death and destruction on a mass scale, even to the point of blowing themselves to oblivion in the service of an unprovable sham and a reward that will never be realized.
Every once in a while, when I hear about yet another horrific act of terror and the murder of innocents in the name of “God” (“God is good!” they yell before detonating the bombs that kill themselves and as many other random human beings as they can possibly kill), I wish there actually WAS an all-knowing, all-seeing deity who would finally say (as He seemed to do quite frequently back in the day, if one is to believe the Bible and the other holy texts), in a booming voice clear enough for everyone to hear and understand, “Enough is enough! You fools have perverted my words for the last time!” and smite all the bad guys with one appropriately named “act of God”. Because by any spiritual measure, human beings and the planet we live on are amazing miracles designed and created by something, and how could that something want its incredible magnum opus to be so callously destroyed – in its name, no less? Religion is the creation of humans (men, almost exclusively), but the creation that is life in all its forms came from something else, and it’s an insane abomination to destroy it in the name, and as the imagined instrument, of the perceived creator.
As long as there is both good and evil in this world, I believe mankind’s most diligent efforts should be directed at curing evil, because evil is really nothing more than the most serious mental illness there is.