Our Minds and Each Other: Rethinking Mental Health
Gail A. Hornstein
IAS Fellow and Professor of Psychology, Mount Holyoke College (USA)
March 5, 2012, 5.30 PM
The Old Library, Grey College, Durham University
The US and the UK enjoy levels of material prosperity unprecedented in human history, yet they also have some of the highest rates of mental illness, anxiety, and depression anywhere in the world. Up to 25% of the adult population, and 10% of children under the age of 18, are now being diagnosed or treated for psychiatric symptoms.
Over the past 30 years, as these numbers have skyrocketed, American cultural attitudes about mental health problems have undergone radical change. Before the 1980s, most Americans took the view still predominant in much of the world today, namely, that social factors – family relations, trauma history, unemployment, racism, poverty, war, or economic circumstance, etc. – affect mental health more powerfully and more directly than genetics or physiology do. But now the US public is taught to think the opposite, that there is a biological cause for every problem, and only interventions at that level (like medication) can prove helpful.
In the UK and Europe, there has been increasing emphasis on issues of ‘well-being’, as mental health comes to be seen as among the most important determinants of general life quality. But the rise of bio-medical explanations and treatments for emotional distress has often made it seem as if mental health simply means the absence of symptoms, and that people’s own understandings of themselves have little place in modern psychology.
My current project, Our Minds and Each Other, seeks to restore an appreciation for the subtlety and usefulness of our own narratives of ourselves, and in particular, to highlight the crucial significance of relationships in shaping mental health. I want to encourage more curiosity about how our own minds work and less fear about the prospect of ‘mental illness’ whenever there are problems. There is real value in the messiness of people’s own ways of framing their experiences, and my IAS public lecture will be devoted to exploring this idea.