Problems surround us everywhere. As good pragmatic Americans we recognize problems are things best approached with solutions. I was listening to a podcast called Invisibilia that discussed how our approach to mental health problems in the United States often leads to overly institutionalized situations where people never really flourish but rather become medicated zombies. They’re stuck in ritualized daily activities of breakfast, medication, lunch, television, dinner, more television, more medication, and then sleep. We think institutionalization and medication are solutions to a problem that we quite frankly can’t solve because there is no real solution. The solution to “no solution” is to isolate the mentally ill keeping them from the greater social setting.
I teach Abnormal Psychology as an undergraduate psychology professor. As we discuss a number of psychological disorders students quickly notice we have very few solutions for the psychological problems people experience. Each time a student makes this observation I say, “Yes, we are not in a place where we cure most mental illness, rather we help individual’s struggling with the disorder cope with the effects of their disorder.” In short, we have no real solution to the problem of mental illness and often turn to institutions like those discussed above to isolate the “solutionless” problem from the greater society. There is another way to respond however, and that’s to accept those dealing with mental illness and seek their wellbeing from within the context of our community. That doesn’t mean taking them off medication or eliminating helpful treatments they need, but it might mean accepting them for who they are and finding a way for our happiness to include their wellbeing.
There is a town in Belgium called Geel. Geel accepts the mentally ill in a radical way. Instead of institutionalizing them, the mentally ill are given foster families where they live for a long time. These families accept their “boarder” and make them members of the family. Even more importantly, the community of Geel accepts these individuals into the community’s life. You find them walking the streets, interacting at the market, and some work in the shops and restaurants of the town. They live like everyone else. Many of us shutter at the thought of allowing mentally ill people to roam the streets because our first thought is they may hurt themselves or perhaps someone else. The truth is they don’t, at least no more than those of us considered “sane” might hurt ourselves. Besides, if you don’t think mentally ill people are walking the streets, you never really took a look at the homeless population. More importantly is the fact the mentally ill in Geel flourish. They live better than those institutionalized in the American mental health system or walking the streets as homeless people. By being permitted to live life the best they can in a community of acceptance they flourish. Yes, it takes work on the part of the community to accommodate these individuals, but in the end, the common good of all people increases.
The point of this post isn’t to advocate for mental health change even thought this is a worthy cause, it’s to highlight that living life well often means being accepting of each other regardless of the differences existing among people. If what matters most for our community is the common good, we must in good earnest seek what’s best for the community along with what’s best for us. We need to say to ourselves, “How can what I do help me and my neighbors find the greatest sense of happiness?” That’s a profound position to adopt. It allows you to psychologically seek what’s good for you but in the context of the many relationships in which you exist. Husbands and wives need to ask themselves, “What can I do today to make my life and my spouses life better?” Parents can ask a similar question. They can ask, “What can we do that’s best for us as well as help our children flourish?” Then families might ask the same type of question regarding their neighborhoods. Neighborhoods can begin to ask that question in relation to cities, cities to states, etc., etc. I think you get the point. Instead of allowing extreme individualism trap us into thinking what’s best for me at the cost of others is most important, I see myself in relation to others and consider how my happiness is connected to the happiness and success of others. The people of Geel have been asking themselves since the middle ages “How can I live well while making the lives of the mentally disturbed better at the same time.” This philosophy has transformed their community.
If we only seek what’s best for us we find ourselves trapped in what I call “Collectivist Individualism.” It’s a state of existence in which we say we’re looking out for what’s best for our community but we do it subconsciously at the cost of others. We forget our success depends on the success of other communities. Collectivist individualism is a dangerous extension of only caring about yourself at the cost of those around you. We have to care about other people and we have to seek what’s best for us in relation to what’s best for others. We can “Make America Great Again” but if we do that without considering the fact we live in community with others we only make ourselves mediocre at the cost of being a positive influence in the lives of others. What’s a more promising future. Is it flourishing while being a positive force in the lives of others or being a lone ranger who finds himself standing in line for medication just before an afternoon of television. I will take the Geel approach to life living with others in a tolerant healthy way that allows me to flourish with others and not at the cost of others. I hope you will begin to see your happiness is not something that comes at the cost of others but rather is built on the happiness and success you foster with them.