Mindfully navigating the mental-health maze means bumping up against a history of misguided blame. Like most hard, ugly and persistent things, we must face that history to transform it into a root attitude that fosters wholeness instead.

Once upon a time lunatics were thought to be creations of the devil. Later, less harsh viewpoints prevailed: perhaps God put these “special people” on earth to teach us something. But the so-called “science” of eugenics said no. They were God’s mistakes, a drag on perfection, and we could assist Divine Will to edit them out. Robert Whitaker in Mad in America has the full story on this sad chapter, well worth reading.

My take on the asylum era is that the mentally ill were judged failures, and I often think it’s seen no differently now. The most “unfortunate” don’t work at career as the mainstream defines it. They speak uncomfortable truths or babble; they don’t care what they look like in public. They often live on the dole. “Slackers.” What good could they possibly bring? This is and was the stereotype–the recovered, productive citizens who carry diagnoses are overlooked by the score.

With Thorazine and the Chemical Imbalance theory, a new causation attempted to take the judgmental tone out of blame. A disease of the brain: a damaged mind, genetics kicking microscopic mysteries haywire in the head. It could happen to anyone, and you never know when that gene-bomb might explode. Take these drugs to contain it, maybe cure it…as long as you stay on your meds.

Then community mental health and the closing of the hospitals. Now we know these minds are slackers: homeless and giving us hell by panhandling on the streets! Can’t somebody pass an ordinance or something? [My hometown passed such a law against approaching people on the street for spare change. Yet the last time I was panhandled downtown, it was, “Excuse me madam, can you spare a smile?” I couldn’t help but comply.]

Inevitable: the steady burgeoning of the mental-helper profession. Those with and without heart garner their training in order to affix a slew of disease profiles they’ve painstakingly categorized. There’s no denying that humanity is chock full of kind souls with a strong desire to heal others. And it is they that this essay reaches out to in part. But everyone will benefit from arriving at a truly compassionate view of “mental illness.”

In my opinion, such is attained by believing that your mind is the Earth.

No one would deny our planet labors under great peril. Warming, storming, and polar melting…animal species dying…skies laced with mercury from emissions… and our own cells loaded with chemicals now banned. What has been documented is that toxic soil, water, and air affect behavior too. The loaded gun–common genetic polymorphisms, not so rare at all–might not get expressed as “mental illness” without “environment pulling the trigger.”

Take for example, pesticides. When Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in the 1960’s, she worried about two hundred pesticide products. Now there are nine hundred active pesticide ingredients, finding their way into 18,000 pesticide products!(1) Pesticides are a much studied toxin, easy to point to as affecting developmental delays and lowered IQ in children. That’s not so controversial anymore: there is public outcry against spraying migrant workers in the fields.

What about the trillions of pounds of tens of thousands of other toxic chemicals, a small fraction of them ever studied, none of them probed in concert for their synergistic effects? Equally unstudied is the all-important timing of exposure. And what of heavy metals, rife in our consumer products like the mercury preservative in flu vaccines? Since the 1930s, the amount of synthetic chemicals in commercial use has doubled every seven to eight years. (2) The chemical medications pumped into “lunatics” only further their body burden and may take years to release.

I don’t mean to be another shrill environmentalist. Is there really, any longer, a separation between “the environment” and ourselves? If we accept that a toxic earth can produce a toxic gut, brain, endocrine and immune system—and that neurotoxins can affect behavior negatively (it’s not like, as a race of human beings, we’re becoming nicer to each other)—then what does that do to our charge of “sicko slackers?“

Maybe the so-called mentally ill are the canaries in the coal mine, alerting us to planet-wide dangers. The most sensitive to the synthetic stew, they become more legion by the day, and they/we are examples of how a hurting Earth hurts everyone. Because we are part of life’s circle, our bodies embedded into food chains, ecosystems, bioregions. Our minds too, symbiotic with the beleaguered flesh, integrally woven to all life on this spinning, blue-green orb.

To walk the nutrient path to mental wellness, and to support others on the same journey, is to applaud bravery. It’s not easy to buck the Blame Makers who profit mightily—with monies and the illusion of safe superiority. But I’d rather avoid the sentimental “wanting to help the poor dears because thank God I’m not one of them”…for an approach that makes judgment of individuals moot when we are all at risk.

Not because of mysterious genetics, the luck of the draw. But because petrochemicals, food additives, industrial solvents, mercury, arsenic, aluminum and more are parked deep within us—and no one is any longer immune. So when we stop blaming God, the devil, our families or hard-wiring in the head, we see the nutrient path is an approach that tackles “mental” illness as environmental contamination. No judgment as to one’s strength, or breeding. Just a mandate to stop blaming and accept our vulnerability along with other living things.

The canaries in the coal mine are busy healing themselves: I feel so privileged to know many who fight to put themselves right, doctor or no doctor for “help.” Don’t consider them unfortunate: they’re role models. Their true leadership awaits as they make recovery their solid prize. These ones practice compassion for the self by sticking with their wellness quest, and without love for the self, how is it possible to love others? So these special people do teach—and lead by forging a way back to health that short-circuits blame.

I do not mean only the chronic or unemployed who stand apart from the Fast Lane. I mean you, with your little bit of Lexipro or your daily, unshakeable despair. I do not judge you weak, nor slacking off for needing a chemical boost that, placebo or not, your doctor or your dealer said would help. I only ask you to tear down the fence between your self and those you deem sickos. You’re as solely “mental” as the next one, which is not at all.

Mind as Earth means no one is alone.


(1) (2) Shabecoff, Phillip and Shabecoff, Alice. Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on Our Children. (Random House, 2008). I will be reviewing this new and most important book soon on this blog.