Is “Curing” Mental Disorders Really a Good Idea?

Yes. Duh.  Curing mental disorders would help millions of people and end so much human suffering related to mental health or a lack thereof.  However, that being said, I can’t seem to get the concept of ableism, and whether or not it relates to this question, out of my head.   This semester, I am also taking a course about teaching children with special needs, and in that course we have explored this concept of ableism, the notion that “normal” is best, that anything that makes a person other than “normal” is bad.  While I would assume that many of us would claim to not hold such a view, that instead we welcome diversity, I question whether we actually do welcome it in its many and varied forms.  Mental disability adds to the diversity of the human race (Hehir 2005)—someone with a mental disability may well see that disability not so much as a curse but as part of who he is, an important aspect of his identity, just as another person might view his skin color or personality that way (Hehir 2005).

When we, as scientists and members of the medical community, use words like “cure” with respect to disabilities, it may sound like a threat to the identity of someone with a disability, someone like Harlyn Rousso, an accomplished psychologist who suffered from cerebral palsy.  She explained that her “disability, with [her] different walk and talk and involuntary movements, having been with [her] all [her] life, was part of [her], part of [her] identity.  With these disability features [she] felt whole. [Her] mother’s attempt to change [her] walk, strange as it may seem, felt like an assault on [her]self, an incomplete acceptance of [her], an attempt to make [her] over” (1984). Rousso felt attacked by a mother who, in trying to protect her from “endless teasing and rejection,” had intentions as good as those of any doctor or researcher trying more generally to “cure” disability (Rousso 1984).

Even if the medical community has the commendable goal of eliminating obstacles from peoples’ lives, if a disability represents part of a person’s inherent nature, is trying to remove that disability okay — especially if the person has not asked for it to be removed?  I understand the desire to help individuals lead lives that are less complicated and painful, and to do so certainly makes sense to me for patients with severe disorders such as schizophrenia, but what about people with autism, deafness, or cerebral palsy?  Where should the line be drawn?  Using language that implies a need to cure these diverse ”abnormal” characteristics that some may feel constitute important parts of who they are, parts intrinsic to their identities, as Seung does, is indicative of an ableist attitude that may be discriminatory to many groups of peoples with physical, emotional, or mental disabilities.

 

Rouss, H. (1984). Fostering healthy self esteem: Part one. Exceptional Parent, 14(8), 9-14.

Hehir, T. (2005) New directions in special education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Seung, S. (2012) Connectome: How the brain’s wiring makes us who we are. New York, NY: First Mariner Books.

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3 thoughts on “Is “Curing” Mental Disorders Really a Good Idea?

  1. I can relate strongly to the concepts behind ableism that you mention as this past summer I worked at a camp for children with special needs, namely kids on the autism spectrum and kids with down’s syndrome. A close friend has an older sister with Down’s, and we spent a great amount of time through the years engaging with her and her friends in various activities. What both of these experiences have left me with is a similar sentiment to that which you have expressed- the kids at camp were perfectly happy, and while that may look quite different from an able bodied person’s definition of happiness, it was happiness none the less.

    For example, here is an individual with Down’s from my camp, talking openly about his experience with the disorder. One can note not only that he is incredibly high functioning, but also that when he talks about his life and what he is currently invested in, he is able to lead quite a full life- and it’s a life that he clearly enjoys.

    http://vimeo.com/57502001

    By bringing this up, I am not trying to make the point that I am completely against “curing” diseases. If the individual gives consent, and the “cure” either makes their lives significantly easier or less dangerous, then I have no ethical problem with it. However, it is more of the assumption that these individuals desire to be cured and that they are somehow unhappy with themselves (which you allude to) that is the real issue at hand.

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  2. I think that given the choice, many people with mental illness would want their disorder cured. Usually, in mental illness, the illness has not been with them their whole lives. The onset of many mental illnesses is in adolescence or early adulthood, so it is not often a part of their identity, but rather, the loss of their identity. Depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder can turn a once happy, stable person into someone who can’t control their emotions, no matter how hard they try to be happy or calm. However, disorders such as autism, cerebral palsy, blindness, or deafness have usually been with a person their whole lives. It is understandable that sometimes, even if their condition prevents them from leading a normal independent life, they might be a little afraid to have it cured. Since they have had the condition their whole lives, they might be a little afraid to make a change and begin living life without disability. They might not know how to live an independent life and being suddenly expected to be independent can be very uncomfortable. When treating and curing disabilities, doctors should be sensitive to this, and even try to give counseling to people who are about to have their disability cured to try to help them to come to terms with a huge, but mostly positive change in their lives. My brother has had type 1 diabetes since he was 3, and although I think he considers it part of his identity, he wouldn’t hesitate to have it cured, if possible. He knows that although it would be a little strange at first to be without his “beetus” as he calls it, it would be an incredibly positive moment in his life and he would be able to have so many more experiences. I think getting rid of any kind of disability would be an overall positive experience, but doctors should be respectful of the fact that it might be hard for people at first.

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  3. Interesting angle! I agree that the language surrounding mental disorders needs a societal change. The idea that someone needs to be “cured” falls right along with mental disorders being referred to as a kind of “illness”.

    What stuck with me after taking Abnormal Psychology was how the level of personal distress drew a line between struggling with day-to-day stress and an anxiety disorder, for example.

    Both problems revolve around a insufficient communication – use of language and lack of personal consideration has been at the root of so many other forms of inequality in our society!

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