It’s been a tough week for the UK – mental illness went up 164%. Previously, mental health charities assured us that one in four people have been diagnosed with a mental illness in their life. But this week, abruptly, one mental health charity suggested as many as two in three adults will suffer from some mental health problem at some point in their life, whether that’s a panic attack or a period of depression.
I never liked the ‘one in four’ statistic. It may have been a useful strategy to draw public attention and get funding, but it also seemed to emphasize that the mentally unwell were a minority, a separate unlucky group from the 75% who are fine and dandy.
It seems to me that everyone has mental illness. And everyone has mental health. Everyone is on a continuum from well to unwell, and moves up and down that continuum all the time. A person could move from very unwell to very well in a day.
The most popular therapeutic interventions today – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness therapy – are deeply influenced by the ancient spiritual traditions of Stoicism and Buddhism. And both Stoicism and Buddhism insist that pretty much the entirety of humanity is mentally ill. Albert Ellis, the founder of CBT, agreed: ‘We’re all out of our f****g minds!’
In both Stoicism and Buddhism, 99.9999% of humans are ignorant of our true nature and lost in ego-delusions which make us suffer. Only the sage is truly sane and well. And the sage – the fully enlightened being – is a very rare creature.
How rare? The Buddha supposedly told a story – imagine the entire world was one ocean, and on that ocean was thrown a floating ring. And in that ocean is a blind turtle, who once every hundred years swims to the surface and pokes his head out at some random spot. The probability of an enlightened being coming into existence is the same as that blind turtle happening to poke his head through the ring.
The rest of us are unenlightened. We don’t know who we are, we’re lost in ego-delusions, swung from happiness to misery and back again by each passing occurrence.
We’re convinced that the aim of life is to have a secure, successful and admired ego which has amassed a pile of money and plaudits by the time we die. We spend each day trying to add to our pile of money and approval. We feel happy when the pile goes up, and sad when it goes down. That’s what we call mental health.
We are all of us dreaming. We call those who are presently having happy dreams ‘the well’, and those who are presently having scary dreams ‘the unwell’. The Buddha or Plato would say: you’re all lost in delusions.
Do you think that 75% of humans in our society are sane and well? Or even 30%? Look around you. We’re all a bit mad. We’re all blindly following ego-delusions – ambition, pride, vanity, the need for the approval of strangers, addiction, restlessness, constant dissatisfaction. Our therapists, philosophers, psychiatrists, life-coaches and mindfulness gurus are just as sick, just as self-obsessed, just as ego-deluded. Believe me, I’ve met them. They’re just as messed up as you and me, possibly more so.
A wife sits at home with depression and alcoholism, while her husband spends all day chasing money and status in a bank. She is clinically unwell, but is he well? Is he not just as sick, just as caught in ego-delusions? He may fit in better with society, but that doesn’t mean he’s well.
Our definition of sanity is fitting in with social norms. How sane is our civilization? We’re in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, every reputable climate scientist tells us we’re heading for significant global warming which is likely to cause massive suffering, social disruption and death and possibility endanger our survival within the next few decades. And we’re in complete denial. We’re endangering our existence and the existence of other species, and we’re refusing to face up to it. If our civilization was a person, it would be sectioned.
Even our obsession with well-being is a bit mad. It’s become the rational secular replacement for religion. We become restless well-being evangelists – there’s an epidemic! Let’s fix this! Let’s talk about it! Let’s introduce a national plan to eradicate suffering! Every week is another ‘mental health week’. The more we talk about it, the bigger the ‘epidemic’ grows.
We endlessly confess to feeling unwell, and congratulate each other for our courage in speaking out. Certainly, stigma around mental illness can worsen our suffering. But what if one of our deepest sicknesses is our bottomless need for attention and approval? When Prince William and Lady Gaga get millions of hits for their online chat, are they freeing us, or deepening that addiction to attention?
I’ve campaigned for a decade for better access to therapy and better well-being education. I know that therapy and education can help free people from acute suffering, and even an article, a conversation or a book can be tremendously healing.
But the root of our suffering is the ego, and it’s a tricky thing to shake off. If we’re serious about moving our society towards flourishing and sanity, we need to realize how unwell we all are, and how unhealthy our normal reality is.