Monday, 24 September 2018

Mental Health - a Birthright Owed us by the Government?

A Lever that Moved this Earth has been Discarded

Cycling through my hometown recently I noticed a Vinyl Record Shop with the very contemporary slogan “Music for Mental Health” as a subtitle to the main signage. This suggested to me music as a sort of pharmacological product which, if you view human beings in a deterministic way, simply needs to be applied judiciously and, perhaps, in the correct dosage. A track or two of Iggy Pop might be used, for example, to correct a tendency to listlessness and lassitude. At the more sinister end of the spectrum the lettering reminded me also of how, in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest’ the wicked Nurse Ratched used music piped into her ward at varying volumes to pacify her collection of dehumanised ‘Chronics’ and ‘Acutes.’  

There is no doubt that mental health is a hot topic. Everybody is talking about it and we are all now deeply and suddenly concerned about it to the extent that you might be forgiven for thinking it never existed before the 21st century.  In a study in America in 2017 the National Institute of Mental Health estimated that 38 per cent of teenage girls and 26 per cent of teenage boys were suffering from anxiety disorders. Three years ago the World Health Organisation estimated that at any one time more than 300 million people have depression – about 4% of the world’s population. The government feels compelled to advertise the fact that it has earmarked large amounts of money designed to put mental ill health “on an equal footing with” physical ill health as if the two phenomena are indistinguishable, in the knowledge that if they don’t they will be written off as heartless – a cardinal political sin in our times. The sure route to public acceptance is to participate in the craze and advertise one’s mental health vulnerability. Having experienced the repercussions of the grief occasioned by losing their mother, young Princes William and Harry recommend themselves to the ‘woke’ battalions by publicly displaying their wounds as if, we wouldn’t, otherwise, believe they weren’t alien life forms. 

What is most interesting is the way the condition known as mental health is being spoken about. It’s as if it’s a disembodied commodity to which we are all entitled with, curiously, the government being seen as chief provider. The relationship between it and us seems similar to the mechanistic one between petrol and a car or between software and a computer. If we have a problem it would be unthinkable that the Government wouldn’t stump up to sort it out just as they’d replace corrupted software in a state school computer, for example. Of course, in reality, mental health problems seldom yield easily and prove to be much more intractable. Only 46% of anorexia sufferers recover fully, for example. This might suggest that unthinkingly shoveling money in the direction of treatment providers to placate political accusers might not be the best solution.

The mechanistic models mentioned above point towards a new version, seldom articulated but implicit, of what we consider a human being to be. Sufficient money will provide sufficient screwdrivers to be inserted into the portal at the back of our craniums to make requisite adjustment as if humans are the equivalent to Artificial Intelligence-lead robots. If it were that easy to correct mental health failure why wouldn’t we pay? However, is the modern model of what a human is an adequate one? If it isn’t, won’t that have an impact on our ability to remedy these conditions?  

In my younger years I was crippled by depression and anxiety. Real pharmacology was applied just like the fantasy application of musical cures posited above. It was all in vain. I did not respond. Now, of course, it would be almost the definition of egotism to extrapolate from my experience of mental health to that of the whole population but I do believe it does have an important general bearing on it. I eventually worked out that I was ill because I had never, as I grew to adult years, fought my way out of an imprisoning background and that the fault had been, in part, my own. I had not exhibited the required courage to make the escape and had, through inaction, colluded with my fate. In other words all of the creative energy destructively turned in on myself with such terrible results derived, at least in part, from a moral fault. This is not to be too hard on myself as, in retrospect, I realise that to denude someone of moral responsibility is, to a large extent, to denude them of their human dignity. I saw talking therapists also but none of them ever broached such possibilities and I was left to discover it for myself many years later when I eventually asserted my autonomy uncompromisingly and got free. In time, I had come to understand that my poor mental health was not a random cloud that had inexplicably fallen on me from a blue sky as a result of bad luck but that it was intimately intertwined with every aspect of who and what I was, where I came from and decisions I made.

This, of course, controversially in our times, suggests that the moral and moral conscience, are prime movers in human affairs - as opposed to Freud’s sexual for instance. It also speculates that the key definer of a human, that which distinguishes us from other animals, is the moral faculty governing and determining our moral destiny. This is a deeply unfashionable and old-fashioned idea and one that, in psychiatric realms, dares not speak its name. Concepts such as moral responsibility, responsible personhood, agency and conscience in connection with those subject to poor mental health are studiously shunned by practitioners for fear of committing that worst of all crimes - being seen to blame ‘patients.’ A patient is always a hapless ‘sufferer’ towards whom unadulterated sympathy is the only permissible response. This fear can mean, in effect, that an essential part of human nature is excised from the diagnosis in a pathology that is intimately to do with that part of human nature. Indeed, to overlook that key element of the human person in the investigation of such enigmas might look like carelessness.

My experience led me, later, to theorise in similar ways about anorexic behaviour in young women, another major strand in the modern, western mental illness agenda. I began to interrogate the possibility that much of such “illness” might be motivated by a fear of growing into womanhood - most of its sufferers are adolescent or slightly older females and often very intelligent ones.  Such female maturity can, these days, entail trying to satisfy crushing feminist imperatives and biological urges often, seemingly, at odds with one another. Perhaps young girls can’t contemplate facing these apparently unresolvable battles looming so large and so close in their futures. Their bodies will, inexorably and increasingly, make it hard to deny their biology so why not try to arrest the development of those bodies? And why not do this while simultaneously distracting everyone’s attention away from their inadequacy in dealing with the very existential challenges bearing down on them? Essentially the problem is a moral one to do with courage. That courage might be needed most of all in refusing modern templates that demand women be no more than men burdened with the inconvenience of breasts, wombs and menstruation. Do such girls need hospitalization or rather accompaniment, reassurance and personal encouragement from strong and wise women in their families along life’s ways? In other words the addressing of the particularly moral difficulties and fears they are stalled by.

One has to keep the very old-fashioned assumption - that what distinguishes humans uniquely is that they are moral and personal - front and center in order to deal with what are essentially moral and existential problems. Such wisdom, rather than drugs, used to be dispensed in wider family units. If you treat a bird as if it is a fish you will probably not affect a cure for its ills. Moral problems are not best addressed by scientists when modern scientific models of what humans are tend to leave out things previously taken for granted. 

Sunday, 23 September 2018

The New Set of Grenfell Victims and the Liberals

Humans are gregarious animals and our societies swiftly experience a need of leadership. We progress from using bloody conflict to decide this to developing peaceful political means (elections and referendums for example) and institutions to avoid the bloodshed of conflict. The commonly acknowledged, respected and even hallowed leadership begins with a duty to provide and guarantee social order. The assertions of liberals, set in law, guarantee that the leadership does not prey upon the citizen's freedoms and keeps citizen and leadership in balance. In a change reminiscent of a Beckett-like relationship, mutation has delivered a new kind of liberal; a spoilt and petulant child demanding that the leadership guarantee a perfect experience of reality free from disaster or misfortune of any kind. These children have legal and political power and will accept nothing less than god-like control of reality from their leaders. Victims of a state or a council that fails to provide this perfect reality are actively sought out and a new kind of propitiatory justice demands counter-victims working for the state be punished for the suffering of the first set of victims. The Grenfell Fire, as fires do, made the air in the immediate environment less than perfect and the Council or the state is seen to be the guarantor of perfect air. As a result we now have a new set of victims and the hunt for a new set of scapegoats.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Instinct versus Science? The Challenge to Expertise

If one were to take one’s courage in one’s hands might one say that we sometimes feel that the no shit-Sherlock school of Science tells us things which we knew already in our bones, things on which humans acted for millennia, hardly even needing to think about them with the front of their minds. We simply steered with the seat of our pants.

Let’s take an example to illustrate this. In its incarnation as neuroscience, science will draw back the curtain with a drum roll and reveal to us that our teenagers are more likely to be impulsive and take risks than adults, that they relate to their friends in different ways, are more self-conscious than us and exhibit different sleeping patterns. It will explain these things by referring to factors such as, for example, proportions and uses of brain gray and white matter which differ from those seen in adults, ongoing ‘synaptic pruning,’ or the role played by myelin as an insulator speeding up or slowing down the transmission of neural signals. In sum, it will tell us that, because of developmental physiological changes, the teenage brain is imperfect in comparison with an adult one. It is a work in progress, teenagers are immature and this is why they sometimes act dumb.

Now, it goes without saying that such findings about underlying detail are inherently interesting, do help medics and do contribute to the sense of wonder we have about any aspect of creation or evolution, depending on your viewpoint, and it is very right and proper, indeed, that science is and should be pre-eminent in dealing with the material world. Nevertheless, perhaps because scientists of “The Infinite Monkey Cage” variety are the new rock stars and the ultimate arbiters of everything, faced with such pronouncements, we doff our gut instincts and dutifully take part in the obligatory choreography of responding to them with slack-jawed amazement. And then we set up the object of investigation on a shrine as if it were a piece of moon rock that had just fallen to Earth, something entirely ‘other’ from us with which we are completely unfamiliar. Who knew that teenagers sometimes appear to be stupid, clumsy and lazy because their brains are still growing??  In our fumbling attempts to come to terms with such facts we now call upon the priestly intercessions of the scientist caste to interpret this alien phenomenon which has dropped from the heavens. That which we used to take for granted has become a terrible object of fear and an Idiot’s Guide to Neuroscience our only recourse.

And then we forget the most important fact of all about the human teenage brain; that brain resides inside the head of the offspring of, well, humans who were once teenagers themselves and humans are us! These alien creatures sprang from our loins and could not be less alien to us if they tried. Could it, even, be averred then, that in those humans who engendered them, there is implanted, just as it is in a lion or a gorilla parent (creatures who seem curiously untroubled by our anxieties or self-help books), an instinct to know exactly how to deal with offspring without the least hint of disempowerment or tremulousness? Could it be suggested that a mammalian creature whose very existence depends on sexual reproduction might have a natural bent for raising its own mammalian children and knowing what to do with them? Indeed, that what comes naturally derives from a nature in existence thousands of years before scientific method was even a gleam in the eye of Francis Bacon or Aristotle? Has science, which was preceded temporally and philosophically by nature, made us distrust or even alienated us from ourselves and does this say something about the curious relationship we now have with our own invention? Are we now in thrall to what used to be our tool? It was supposed to make us superior to the other species! This paralysis before our own children wasn’t supposed to happen! And who ever made us forget that adolescence (meaning ‘growth to maturity) is not an end in itself to be worshipped for its own sake but merely a staging post on the way to the true end – maturity or successful adulthood, a state in which we will, in all likelihood, spend three quarters of our lives?

This may all sound like dangerously setting up mere “instinct” against the “experts” for obedient prostration before Science is what the new orthodoxy considers to be proper. What exactly is the status of the instinct that preceded science in relation to science? After all, science was a latecomer in human affairs and history and, perhaps the reason on which it is based comes after the instinct inherent in our nature. This, of course is dangerous territory as it suggests we already “know” things without the aid of science (based on the latin verb, sciere - “to know”) a view which is almost heretical in our times.  If that is the case from where does such “knowledge” derive?

What were we before the advent of science, and still are despite its advent, and in the case of most of the human race who are not professional scientists? Were we always the modern, disembodied head in a jar version that thrives on data, maths and scientifically presented ‘evidence’ alone? The notably cerebral sage and poet TS Eliot spoke of a regrettable “dissociation of sensibility,” or an alienation form ourselves that occurred as the Enlightenment was getting underway. He lamented the fact that this decline meant that we differ from people like William Shakespeare and John Donne. For they apprehended knowledge through the whole embodied person where thought and emotion were almost the same thing. We could extrapolate from this that, perhaps, in their time, a human person was sexual, sensuous, intuitive, instinctual and trusting of gut feeling. He or she used the whole body to apprehend others through ‘body language’ and emotional intelligence as an unthinking default, knowing no different. And, compared with this instinctual way of responding to the world the scientific way might seem a lesser rather than a greater one in that it is relatively slow, deliberate and clodhopping, especially in the field of human relations.

Recent years have seen the woeful failures of maths-based science and big data to reduce the very human spheres of politics and economics to something which is predictable thus giving the lie to the mastery of the scientific method when applied in these areas, areas which repeatedly confound it.

Back to, as one author puts it, reading “with our spine and not with our skull’? That is to say, trusting our instinct and simply knowing when to kick or when to cosset our teenagers, and when to trust our politicians and bankers without needing to thumb through the self-help book or scientific manual and without being scared of them. After all, they are just us and it’s not impossible to know ourselves and, even more importantly, to trust ourselves…. It’s what we do every time we forget we are supposed to, or don’t have time to, do it another way.

Saturday, 8 September 2018


'Wanderlust' is a new BBC series peopled by the obligatory, tiresomely cute, knowing, metropolitan types who communicate relentlessly in wisecracks and smartarserie and are oh so at ease talking about sex (the programme has scenes of a sexual nature from the beginning and throughout). The curious thing is the way that these BBC liberal types separate out the business of sex and the business of relationship. The latter is conducted relentlessly via the increasingly sterile, wisecracking side of their personas. So intent are they on sustaining this that they never notice that sex and its uncomplicated animal attraction is the actual vehicle through which relationship is normally conducted between the, er, sexes. My guess is that to concede this would be to place something that they are, in truth and in their high-mindedness, rather embarrassed by, above their self-regarding intellects. Programmes like this treat sex as an intellectually remote object for clinical study rather than as a part of our nature inseparable from what we are. They try to assert the ascendancy of the merely cerebral over the heart.

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Into Academia

AE Housman was a celebrated academic who used his scholarly rigour and discipline to produce poetry that was firmly in the domain of, and available to, the literate Common Man. It promoted poetry as a pleasure. Geoffrey Hill is the severest of academics who takes poetry firmly into the exquisite and rarified domain of academia where only those few who can congratulate themselves on being able to follow him there can go. He takes it away from the literate Common Man, as so many of the intensely cerebral high priests of Modernism do, thus ensuring that poetry is the recreation of a tiny, self-flattering elite and further guaranteeing that its attractions will wither and die for the Common Man. He produces poetry which is ridiculous in this way such as:

If I were to grasp once, in emulation,
work of the absolute, origin-creating mind,
its opus est, conclusive
otherness, the veil
of certitude discovered as itself
that which is to be resolved,
I should hold for my own, my self-giving,
my retort upon Emerson's 'alienated majesty',
the De Causa Dei of Thomas Bradwardine.

Even though poetry with its eye on poetic pleasures can educate, poetry is not supposed to be a test of erudition or a deliberate and explicit education. 

Friday, 31 August 2018

Impossible to Grow Up?

It is deeply unfashionable to suggest that we have a nature that might define or limit us in any way. Such views are seen as profoundly primitive and lacking the modern sophistication that suggests we are at liberty to fashion ourselves as whatever we choose to be, as if we are something we can make on a 3D printer. Equally unfashionable is the suggestion made by the Canadian Psychologist, Jordan Peterson, to his female students, that the majority of those of them that choose not to have children will seriously regret it. It is only because he has created his own zone of influence through his Youtube success that he is able to say this. Outside of that zone it would be very hazardous to voice such an opinion.

The idea that a female human's nature will mean, by definition, that she will want to bear and raise children is at war with modern feminist directives. These say that women must be equivalent to men, achieve the same things as men and even behave like men in order to have value (of a very male type) and not be defined or limited by such old-fashioned ideas relating to their nature. Women must be seen to box and play rugby in a curious emulation of what is deemed to give men, not women, value and status as that, apparently, is the only route to acceptance. This seems to run counter to the idea that women have their own female-defined value and to be strangely and ironically accepting of 'patriarchal' calibrations of value as the only ones available. Of course, it should be said that childbirth is not the only thing a woman will or can do but the likes of Peterson suggest that doing it at some point will be vital for most women for their fulfilment and happiness.

The inability to resolve the conundrum set out above is voiced in the debate as to whether women can have it all. From the viewpoint of an adolescent female, who will have the momentous likelihoods of childbirth and motherhood on her mind together with the enjoinders to satisfy the exigencies of modern feminist decrees this resolution may seem impossible. This may even lead them to feeling ashamed of and wishing to disown the instincts they feel inside themselves. Such a conflict is certainly enough to explain a desire to shrink from the imminent adulthood which is inexorably approaching. At this point forms of self-harm and forms of attempts at arresting development may have an appeal. What better way to rebel against a nature that is becoming more and more obviously designed for child-bearing than to seek to prevent such development?

Given this predicament, which will doubtlessly afflict a lot of intelligent girls aware of ideological demands on them, another aspect of the modern ethos comes into play. We are now a society where child-centredness is the norm. Parents tremulously worship at the shrine of the sacred child and observe it for every sign of the least distress or discomfort. What better way, therefore, for a female teenager to exploit this than by distracting everyone's attention from her inability to cope with looming womanhood by self harming or becoming anorexic? Such actions, particularly distressing for a child-obsessed parent, are a way of guaranteeing control over their attention and manipulating the agenda. With the panicky, narrow focus now on her physical wounds or weight loss the young girl replaces a sense of helplessness with a sense of power. Everyone dances to her tune and she continues to avoid the challenge of growing up and choosing what she wants to be in the teeth of many things telling her what she has to be.

As I said at the outset, at the heart of a lot of this is a certain high-minded liberalism which believes hubristically that, through the power of human reason and science it can re-engineer nature to be more or less anything it wants to be. This liberalism sneers at our given nature and deems simple acceptance of it as primitive and lacking in sophistication. Women are now ashamed to embrace their womanhood and men are encouraged to be ashamed of any sign that, in spite of their muscles, body hair and the testosterone coursing round those bodies, they are, perish the thought, 'masculine' in any way. These facts bar the way to happiness for many because of the dangerous idea that happiness is being in harmony with and enjoying one's nature. If what I say is true this constitutes a fundamental attack on what we are and a profound example of self-loathing and self-destruction at the most basic level. It  is a true catastrophe and can't end well.