Mental Illness as a Crisis of Meaning in Modern Society

Modern society is characterised by many things, but perhaps most notably by the remarkable scientific and technological advancement, as well as capitalism, individualism and hedonism. We are wealthier than our ancestors, we live in more safe and comfortable environments, we have more access to food and other basics needs, why then have we seen a massive spike in mental illness?

The bulk of evidence concludes that there seems to have been a significant rise in the incidence of lunacy in the 19th century, and that this increase consisted largely of patients with the illness we now call schizophrenia.

One of the most widely ramifying features of modernity is the intense focus on the value and power of the individual self. To turn away from the search of an objective external order and to instead turn inward and become aware of our own activity. This becomes a pervasive feature of human experience and self-knowledge in the 19th century.

Western culture is dominated by individualism, subjectivism and relativism, with the rise of a new character type that dominates our age, the “psychological man” who is intent upon the conquest of his inner life.

Mental illness must also be viewed in line with the modern social structure, with bureaucratisation, technologisation, secularisation and rationalisation of the modern world on the level of individual experience. The conditions of modern life with its rational forms of social organisation are more complex, conflicting and require potentially disorienting cognitive requirements.  

While there is an emphasis on individuality, one must also simultaneously adapt to society’s evolving needs. The problem arises when these two are in contradiction, leading to a sense of inner division.

The Myth of Mental Illness

In The Myth of Mental Illness, psychiatrist Thomas Szasz criticises the psychiatric establishment who uses mental illness as a metaphor to describe an offending or disturbing pattern of behaviour, under the wide-ranging term schizophrenia, as an “illness” or “disease”.

Szasz wrote:

“If you talk to God, you are praying; if God talks to you, you have schizophrenia. If the dead talk to you, you are a spiritualist; if you talk to the dead, you are a schizophrenic.”

Thomas Szasz, The Second Sin

While many behave and think in disturbing ways, this does not mean they actually have a disease. Unlike physical illness and disease, mental illness is judged from certain psychosocial, ethical or legal norms. Transgressing these is not a consequence of illness, but of the attempt to confront and tackle the problems in living.

Szasz does not suggest that mental illnesses do not exist, rather he is claiming that many such phenomena is a consequence of the attempt to confront and to tackle the problem of how to live, and that to identify such phenomena as a disease or an illness is to hide the very real problems in living that people face.

Modern Society: Freedom and Responsibility

With increasing understanding of himself and of the world, modern man feels that he is free to direct his own life and must take responsibility for it. We are, as Jean-Paul Sartre asserted, “condemned to be free”, condemned to shoulder the burden of our freedom and responsibility without being able to seek refuge in others.

We must be responsible for ourselves for we have no other way of experiencing ourselves or the world as being in any other mode than our own existence. We cannot have our existence depend on somebody else, for that would contradict the very core of our being. We can ask for other people’s opinions, but the choice ultimately lies in us.

Many cannot stand this dizzying freedom. Kierkegaard says that one can either get lost in the infinite (a state of analysis-paralysis where one thinks of the infinite possibilities but never acts) or get lost in the finite (becoming an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd). The latter is a finitude’s despair or what we’d now call depressive psychosis. One cannot imagine any alternate ways of life and release himself from the trivial obligations that give him no value. It is as if one has literally died to life but must remain physically in this world, one “lives dyingly.”

Eventually, one faces the “why” of existence, as Albert Camus writes:

“Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, according to the same rhythm – this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the ‘why‘ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.”

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

Camus’s absurd person is one who has seen through the ridiculous repetitions of daily life, he is conscious of his Sisyphean condemnation, we all have to push our own boulders and watch it roll back down. If what we do does not satisfy our “why” of existence, we must search for other alternatives or risk falling into an existential crisis, a nauseating sensation of trying to justify one’s existence, which can lead to suicide.

Modern Society: Death of God

One of Western civilisation’s most significant events is the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, a period which undermined the values that society had hitherto relied on, namely, on the religious view. This engenders the most profound cultural, sociological and psychological repercussions, leaving many facing a crisis in discerning a meaning or purpose for their existence and struggling to tackle the problems in living that this gives rise to.

While we previously had ready answers to the problem of how life ought to be lived and what its overall meaning and purpose was (since faith in the existence of God gave us the reassurance that we are partaking in a divine project) we are now slowly experiencing the consequences of what Nietzsche proclaimed as the death of God, whose full consequences would elude many people as he made clear:

“This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men… This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars – and yet they have done it themselves.”

The Gay Science, §125

This realisation forces us to be faced with the terrifying question: “Has existence any meaning at all?” The modern age is characterised by a sense of disorientation of not knowing what to do with one’s life.

The Existential Vacuum

One notable figure who has attempted to respond to this existential crisis and the psychological manifestations of meaninglessness, is Viktor Frankl. We have been left in an existential vacuum, the meaning crisis and mass neurosis of modern times is the “unheard cry for meaning”. Frankl believes this is the cause of much of modernity’s increase in mental illness, it is the struggle to confront the existential vacuum, he writes:

“Such widespread phenomena as depression, aggression and addiction are not understandable unless we recognise the existential vacuum underlying them.”

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Frankl’s therapeutic response to those experiencing such phenomena is to reorient the person to the meaning, or the purpose of their existence. To confront the question of the meaning of their existence, to explore the question, and, ultimately, to provide a positive answer to it.

Finding meaning to one’s life is not to be understood as some idle or academic curiosity that one engages in when more fundamental needs have been met, the striving to search for and to possess a meaning or a purpose for one’s life is said to be the primary motivational force in man.

Without a meaning, all of life’s struggles, strivings and projects become, ultimately, futile. Frankl believes that this sense of futility is what characterises addiction, aggression and depression.

“There is nothing in the world… that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.”

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Frankl concludes:

“In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

The Hero Journey

Modern man is in desperate need for the hero journey. In Man and His Symbols, Jungian psychologist Joseph Henderson describes the importance of the hero myth as a universal pattern throughout the world. The hero descends into darkness to slay a dragon, rescue a damsel in distress and gather the treasure.

The early weakness of the hero is balanced by the appearance of strong guardians who enable him to perform the tasks that he cannot accomplish unaided. Their role is the development of one’s strengths and weaknesses, in a manner that will equip one for the arduous tasks which life confronts him. This can be linked to being dependent on one’s parents. It is only when one becomes independent and confronts the world by himself that the individual has passed his initial test and can enter the mature phase of life.

What Actually Takes Place Inside the Mentally Ill?

In Memories, Dreams, Reflections; Carl Jung’s research brought him to the burning question: “What actually takes place inside the mentally ill?”. He writes:

“To my mind, therapy only really begins after the investigation of that wholly personal story. It is the patient’s secret, the rock against which he is shattered. If I know his secret story, I have a key to the treatment… In most cases exploration of the conscious material is insufficient… In therapy the problem is always the whole person, never the symptom alone. We must ask questions which challenge the whole personality.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams Reflections. Chapter IV: Psychiatric Activities

Jung treated many schizophrenic patients, who were considered a lost cause. The paradox of schizophrenia is that there is both a dissolution of the self in the world, but also the dissolution of the world in the self; eternal punishment but divine omnipotence. The patient doubts that it is really him who is thinking his thoughts, “reality” might as well by a train of illusions produced in him by evil scientists. It is the most profound form of self-contradiction, to be both God and a worm.

Jung, however, found out that many people who were diagnosed with schizophrenia actually had ordinary depression as a result of traumas and difficult life experiences that had been repressed.

He tells the story of an 18 year old girl who had been abused at the age of 15. She retreated into isolation and concealed herself from people. She was taken to a mental hospital and remained in a catatonic state. Over the course of many weeks, Jung gradually persuaded her to speak. After overcoming many resistances, she told Jung that she had been living on the moon. She said that she did not like this world and that the moon was beautiful and life there was rich in meaning. He writes:

“As a result of the incest to which she had been subjected as a girl, she felt humiliated in the eyes of the world, but elevated in the realm of fantasy… The consequence was complete alienation from the world, a state of psychosis… She became “extra-mundane”, as it were, and lost contact with humanity. She plunged into cosmic distances, into outer space, where she met with the winged demon… By telling me her story she had in a sense betrayed the demon and attached herself to an earthly human being… Thereafter I regarded the sufferings of the mentally ill in a different light. For I had gained insight into the richness and importance of the inner experiences.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams Reflections. Chapter IV: Psychiatric Activities

Modern Society: Lack of a Tribe

In his book “Tribe”, Sebastian Junger argues that throughout history, humans have had a strong instinct to belong to small groups or “tribes”. These tribes gave people a purpose and understanding of life. However, this tribal connection has been obliterated in modern society.

During the wars with the Indian tribes, many European settlers were taken as prisoners and held within the tribes. After they had a chance to escape and return to their modern society, many refused to do so, they preferred the primitive society over their modern one. On the contrary, not one tribesman wanted to flee to modern society.

We have evolved genetically to live in an interdependent group in order to survive. And this creates equality as everyone plays a necessary role in the tribe. They work 12 hours a week to survive in contrast to the average 40 hours a week that many Westernised societies require. The tribes collaborate for survival, each day they go to hunt and gather and in the evening they return to share the food.

People often believe that modern life with all its efficient technology has allowed for more leisure time. However, the exact opposite is true. Modern life is characterised by a desperate cycle of work, financial obligation and more work – sacrificing personal freedom.

One might argue, however, that modernity has allowed for a sense of independence which primitive man could never have achieved, leading to a sense of freedom – but can also, lead to a feeling of alienation and depression.

We have not yet been genetically adapted to our environment, the enormous changes of agriculture and the industrial revolution have hardly begun to affect our gene pool. In other words, even though we live in more complex societies, we are still hardwired to be hunter-gatherers.

Today, we can be surrounded by a group of people and yet feel completely alone. This is not something we have experienced until quite recently. We are wired to belong to a group where we feel valued by our contributions to it – and without a group, many fall into a sense of meaninglessness.

Sociologist Émile Durkheim first noticed the positive effects of war on mental health. The suicide rate, homicide, and admission to psych wards dropped down. Likewise, in natural disasters, people overwhelmingly devote their energy to the community rather than themselves. Adversity produces pro-social behaviours in which one is likely to abandon his self-interest and sacrifice himself for others, acting as a unified society – sending people back into a more ancient way of life.

Modernity has disrupted the social bonds that has always characterised the human experience. It breeds comfort, allowing people to act selfishly. This shows an increase of mental illness in modern society’s deep lack of a sense of community which the tribe had historically provided us. We have much to learn from our ancestors in this regard.

Modern Society: Psychic Dissociation

“The world hangs on a thin thread. And that is the psyche of man… We are the great danger… How important it is to know something about it, but we know nothing about it.”

Carl Jung, BBC “Face To Face” (1959)

Jung warns us that we are pitifully unaware of our unconscious, we have become too rational and have lost contact with our primitive instincts, leading to a dissociation in the psyche of modern civilisation. He writes:

“Things whose enormity nobody could have imagined in the idyllic harmlessness of the first decade of our country have happened and have turned our world upside down. Ever since, the world has remained in a state of schizophrenia… Modern man does not understand how much his “rationalism” (which has destroyed his capacity to respond to numinous symbols and ideas) has put him at the mercy of the psychic “underworld.” He has freed himself from “superstition” (or so he believes), but in the process he has lost his spiritual values to a positively dangerous degree. His moral and spiritual tradition has disintegrated, and he is now paying the price for this break-up in worldwide disorientation and dissociation.”

Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols. Part I: Approaching The Unconscious: The Role of Symbols

The surface of our world seems to be cleansed of all superstitious and irrational elements, however a realistic picture of the human mind reveals many primitive traits which are still playing their role just as if nothing had happened during the last centuries.

Man feels himself isolated in the cosmos, because he no longer has a deep relation with nature. When a primitive society’s spiritual values are exposed to the impact of modern civilisation, its people lose the meaning of their lives, their social organisation disintegrates, and they themselves morally decay. As Ernest Becker writes:

“Anthropologists have long known that when a tribe of people lose their feeling that their way of life is worthwhile they may stop reproducing, or in large numbers simply lie down and die beside streams full of fish: food is not the primary nourishment of man.”

Ernest Becker, The Birth and Death of Meaning

Unlike primitive man, modern man has lost contact with nature and his relationship with animals and trees through mystical participation. We may have advanced in the outer world, but our inner world is still delicate and fragmentary.

A famous fictional example of the modern dissociation is Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In the story Jekyll’s split took the form of a physical change, rather than (as in reality) an inner, psychic state. Jung writes:

“We can be possessed and altered by moods, or become unreasonable and unable to recall important facts about ourselves or others… We talk about being able to “control ourselves”, but self-control is a rare and remarkable virtue… there is a world of difference between a conscious decision to split off and temporarily suppress a part of one’s psyche, and a condition in which this happens spontaneously, without one’s knowledge or consent and even against one’s intention. The former is a civilised achievement, the latter a primitive “loss of a soul”, or even a pathological cause of a neurosis.”

Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols, Part I: Approaching the Unconscious: The Importance of Dreams

In order to heal the split in the psyche, Jung tells us to explore our unconscious through self-reflection and dream journaling. We must understand that there are things within us that are beyond our control, which are autonomous personalities.

Here is where we find the vital insights for our lives, and where the primitive aspects that form part of the original mind are preserved as archetypes. Despite our differences, we all share a collective unconscious which adapts itself to the particularities of the individual’s life.

“We have been so busy with the question of what we think that we entirely forgot to ask what the unconscious psyche thinks about us.”

Man and His Symbols, Part I: Approaching the Unconscious: Healing the Split

Mental Illness as a Crisis of Meaning in Modern Society

Modern society has seen a massive spike in mental illness. Why could this be? We will be exploring the characteristics of modernity and associate it with the rise of mental illness.

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Published by Eternalised

In Pursuit of Meaning. I hope to help as many people as possible who seek to enrich their lives with value and meaning. That is the ultimate purpose of Eternalised.

2 thoughts on “Mental Illness as a Crisis of Meaning in Modern Society

  1. Hey man, i love your work and i fully support your mission to enlight the broader public of the importance of meaning. Though i think you should consider giving more credit to the articles from which you borrow most of your material. I just watched this video after reading Roberts, M. (2007) myself, and i thought it sounded very familiar. I then realised that the sections where you used this article, you basically just read it out loud word by word (with a few changes). I know what you write your references in the description, but i think it would very much help with your (academic) integrity to make it clear in the video aswell.
    Best regards, a frequent viewer

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