Recently in our community a debate has raged over the care and support given to people who are struggling with mental health issues. It is not a new discussion; but it has taken on added intensity with the recent public awareness of the tragic deaths of mental health patients who have not been able to find their way to a place of wellbeing.
Those who feel let down by the care they or their family members have received, suggest that the system has failed them. The argument seems to be that the system has an answer but through inefficiency, stinginess, or simply lack of goodwill the system refuses to provide the treatment that could save those who are desperately in need.
The premise is questionable. The problem is not system failure. The problem is that the system does not have the answer. Mental health issues are incredibly complex because they are human issues. We humans are deeply mysterious beings. We cannot be summed up by any one view of the world. There is no single answer that fits every human being or that can be applied in the same way to every human situation. No one solution is adequate to explain or prescribe a solution for the variety of challenges we humans confront.
When we speak about mental health issues, we are talking about medical scientific issues. Our brains are made up of chemicals and electrical impulses. Like any animal, we humans are biological entities. But we are not merely mechanical, physiological creatures capable of being summed up by a materialistic worldview. We are much more than science alone has ever been capable of dreaming.
We are a product of our genetic inheritance, our childhood experiences and our family upbringing. We are affected by the things we eat, by the environment in which we live, and by the social policies of our government. Some of us suffer the devastating emotional effects of allergic reactions and mysterious misunderstood physical ailments. We may suffer from past trauma, present addictions, or lack of adequate dietary nutrition. We are shaped by our own complex personal make-up and by the unique way we have developed of processing our world. All these factors are thrown togeether into an uneasy mix with the consequences of the personal choices we have made throughout our lives.
It is a puzzling stew, incapable of tidy summary by any human system of thought or analysis.
Beyond this complex mix of factors, as much as some may choose to deny it, we are also spiritual beings. We are responsive to a deeper impulse of mystery that no system can ever adequately explain or single theory hope to contain.
There is a dimension of what constitutes a human that cannot be captured by materialistic science, intellectual psychology, academic philosophical, or sociological constructs. At the heart of what it means to be human lies a deep impenetrable mystery that reaches out beyond the physical realm into the unknown reality that has haunted the human part of creation since at least the beginning of recorded human interaction with the world. There is beauty, truth, and nobility at the heart of what makes us human that transcends our cognitive experience of life.
Mental health issues will never be adequately addressed until every dimension of what it means to be human is taken into consideration. Any system that refuses to take seriously the totality of what constitutes a human being is doomed to failure in dealing with the painful struggles that are an inevitable part of the human condition in this difficult world.
In a 1996 interview David Foster Wallace who committed suicide two years ago, spoke of his own psychic struggles saying
it may be what in the old days was called a spiritual crisis or whatever. It’s just feeling as though the entire axiom of your life turned out to be false, and there was actually nothing, and you were nothing, and it was all a delusion.
Tragically for Wallace “spirituality” was something for “the old days.” He had no hope in anything beyond himself. When his art failed him, the medical system failed him, success failed him, and even human relationships did not provide adequate motivation to continue bearing the pain of life, there was nothing left to keep David Foster Wallace from hanging himself.
But suicide is not primarily a system failure. Suicide is a failure of the imagination. People die when they can no longer picture a life different than their bleak experience of unrelenting pain. When our vision of what it truly means to be human is impoverished, we are unable to create adequate responses to the tragic realities of the human condition.
There is no path to health that intentionally bypasses an essential component of our human nature. For certain people of a tender introspective disposition, there is just nothing in the external world that has the power to sustain them in the difficult task of living. They need to be pointed to something deeper. They need to be guided into communion with the Mystery of life to which all spiritual traditions direct our attention and which we neglect at our peril.