The Myth of Mental Illness and the Truth About Mental Health: A Man’s Journey to Freedom


Part 1

I was five years old in 1949 when my uncle drove me to the mental hospital. I was confused and afraid.

“Why do I have to go?” I asked Uncle Harry.

He looked at me with his round face and kind eyes. “Your father needs you.”

“What’s the matter with him?” I was beginning to cry and I clamped my throat tight to

stop the tears.

He turned away and looked back at the road. In our family, we didn’t talk about difficult issues. I knew that my father was in a hospital and it was my duty to visit him. It never occurred to me to ask why my mother didn’t come to visit, but she assured me that I was being her “brave little man” by going to help my father.

When I talk about “the myth of mental illness,” I am not saying that people like my father don’t suffer or that there isn’t a need for treatment. As you will learn as I discuss this more, I’m talking about the limiting and inaccurate way we have viewed mental suffering and the kinds of help that are needed for people in order to become mentally healthy.  

My uncle came to visit my father every Sunday and I went with him. Being a dutiful son was something I learned early. Even at age five, I felt responsible for my parents. Though the story of why my father was in a mental hospital emerged slowly and was never talked about, I came to understand from overhearing my mother and uncle talking that my father had a “nervous breakdown.” He had become increasingly angry and depressed because he couldn’t support his family and took an overdose of sleeping pills and he was committed to the state mental hospital to receive treatment.

I visited my father for fifty-two excruciating Sundays with Uncle Harry. As we would get closer to the hospital I thought about the story of Alice in Wonderland.

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

 My father’s condition grew increasingly worse. He was given more drugs and more shock treatments. Even in my child-mind it was obvious that whatever he was getting in this place it was not helping him. However, the doctors told my mother he just needed more treatment which he continued to receive until he finally escaped from the mental hospital after seven years and never returned. I grew up wondering what happened to my father, whether it would happen to me, and how I could prevent it from happening to other families. I wrote about our healing journey in my book, My Distant Dad: Healing the Family Father Wound.

Medical School, Graduate School, and Meeting Dr. Szasz

After graduating from U.C. Santa Barbara in 1965, I was accepted into medical school at U.C. San Francisco. I hoped to become medically trained and go on to become a psychiatrist. I imagined that if I became smart enough I could somehow figure out how I could help my father and other men like him. And in my secret heart of hearts, I thought higher education would inoculate me from “mental illness” so that the disease that got him wouldn’t get me.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that medicine was not for me. Cutting up my first cadaver gave me some understanding of anatomy but talking to my professors convinced me that medicine, as it was being practiced back then, was way too restrictive for me. Getting through four more years of schooling, plus internships, and residencies before I could become a mental-health healer didn’t seem like a good choice.

I remembered doing a summer internship at a mental  hospital two years previously and remembered talking to several social workers who seemed to have a much broader view of mental illness and mental health. I decided to transfer from medical school to the School of Social Welfare at U.C. Berkeley.

However, before I could leave medical I had to see a psychiatrist. From the point of view of the medical establishment, anyone who would return a 4-year-full-tuition fellowship at one of the best medical schools in the country to transfer to a school of social work, must be crazy.  In my mind, I would be crazy to stay and work in a system that thought all problems were restricted to the individual psyche. I never knew what my psychiatric diagnosis was, but unlike my father I was not deemed a danger to myself or others, so I was allowed to return the money for my medical training and transfer to U.C. Berkeley.

Berkeley in 1965 was alive with protest. The free speech movement began there in 1964 when Mario Savio called on students to oppose the universities restrictions on free speech.

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part,”

he told his fellow students.

“And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus — and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

When I arrived on campus in 1965, people were protesting the war in Vietnam and I joined them. One of my fellow students in the School of Social Welfare, Mel Newton, had a brother named Huey, who co-founded The Black Panther Party to oppose police brutality towards minorities and I learned, first-hand, about the struggle for civil rights.

In my graduate studies, there were three overlapping divisions: Case Work where we learned about individual mental and emotional problems and healing, Group Work where we learned about family systems and helping people in groups, and Community Organization where we learned about the impact of larger systems on people’s health and well-being.

I specialized in Case Work but took classes in the other two disciplines as well. We learned about therapy, counseling, and psychological theory. But the school offered a much broader range of perspectives including some new ideas about mental health and mental illness that were viewed as somewhat radical at the time.

One of the guest speakers at the school was Dr. Thomas Szasz. He was a Hungarian-American academic and psychiatrist who served for most of his career as professor of psychiatry at the State University of New York. He was also a distinguished lifetime fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and a life member of the American Psychoanalytic Association.

He had just written a book, The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct. In describing the book he told us,

“I tried to show how and why the concept of mental illness is erroneous and misleading and because of their supposed incapacity to ‘know what is in their own best interests,’ people who suffer must be cared for by their families or the state, even if that care requires interventions imposed on them against their will or incarceration in a mental hospital.”

Dr. Szasz argued throughout his career that mental illness is a metaphor for human problems in living, and that mental illnesses are not “illnesses” in the sense that physical illnesses are. Today we know that all illness, physical and mental, have multiple causes and what goes on in our mind is influenced by our biology, believes, history, traumatic past, social environment and a host of other factors.  

By the time I met Dr. Szasz and read his book, I had reconnected with my father who unexpectedly showed up at my college graduation in 1965. I had not seen him since his “treatments” had made him worse to a point where he didn’t know who I was and in despair I stopped going to see him. My uncle continued his visits until my father was able to escape one day when he said he needed to get a stamp at the post office. He kept on going and my uncle had to report him missing.

I spent the summer following my graduation getting to know my father. He talked with bitterness about his time at Camarillo and was afraid that if he contacted his family, he would be returned and locked up again. In Part 2 of this article I will share more about what I learned from my father and how he was finally able to get the help he needed by checking into God’s Hotel where he met a doctor who could truly help and a hospital community where real healing could occur.  

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