Book Review: On Mental Illness

Book cover: On Mental Illness from The School of Life

On Mental Illness comes from The School of Life, which, according to their website, is “an organisation built to help us find calm, self-understanding, resilience and connection – especially during troubled times.” The book’s introduction says it aims to be “a sanctuary, a walled garden filled with nourishing psychological vegetation, and with comfortable benches on which to sit and recover our strength, in an atmosphere of kindness and fellow-feeling.”

Chapters in the book include reasons to live, acceptance, medication, psychotherapy, self-compassion, and gratitude. There’s a chapter on self-regulation that touches on common issues like sleep, hygiene, and exercise, and also presents the concept of the window of tolerance.

When it comes to the causes of mental illness, I’m anti-reductionism, whether that goes in a biological or psychosocial direction. This book leans pretty hard into psychosocial reductionism in this paragraph, which felt rather reminiscent of Johann Hari’s book Lost Connections (which I ranted about here):

“We shouldn’t be surprised at the enormous levels of mental illness at large in society; we need only get clear how bad we collectively are at love, how poor we are at lending sympathy, at listening, at offering reassurance, at feeling compassion and at forgiving—and conversely how good we are at hating, shaming, and neglecting… Furthermore, we’ve opted to wash our hands of the issue of love and handed responsibility for healing wholesale to scientists, as though they could culture a complete solution to mental wellness through their medication. We ignore that the cure largely lies in the emotional realm: in getting better at appeasing each other’s fears, at being generous about our transgressions, at no longer tormenting and maltreating one another for our failures  and at sitting together through the darkness in a spirit of care and kindly forbearance.”

Authors, whoever you are, you really don’t want to see me unmedicated.

The chapter on psychotherapy included the decidedly odd section “What benefit is there in your illness?” The book acknowledges that asking this “could sound like the height of nastiness,” but it “can be raised from the kindest and most sincere motives.” One of the example scenarios that’s given is a father acting out of jealousy of “his son’s nascent sexual prowess.” Oh my, how very Freudian! In the same chapter, I found this line interesting: “Most therapists we come across are likely to be less than what they should be.” I don’t necessarily disagree, but “most” was an interesting choice of word.

The book is a quick read, with short chapters. I’m not entirely sure how to describe the writing style, which is quite different from what I usually read. It felt formal; not academic or scientific or using difficult concepts or vocabulary, but sort of reminiscent of what you might expect to read when visiting a museum or monastery. There is some use of the collective “we,” but that didn’t make it feel any less impersonal to me. From the book description, it seems like people with mental illness are the target audience, but I finished the book feeling rather unclear on who it was really trying to speak to. I think it might actually appeal more to outsiders who want a kind, gentle, pretty picture of mental illness than it would to seriously mentally ill folks like myself. Or maybe it’s just me; hard to say for sure.

On Mental Illness is available on Amazon (affiliate link).

I received a reviewer copy from the publisher through Netgalley.

You can find my other reviews on the MH@H book review index or on Goodreads.

24 thoughts on “Book Review: On Mental Illness”

  1. Darn. I liked the intro you shared, though it should’ve warned me: that much warm and fuzzy usually comes with a cost. I’m not a fan of reductionism either: I’m pretty sure their is NO advantage to my suicidal ideation and efforts, since I’m not the type to share.

  2. The flowery garden description made my skin crawl. Maybe it’s my jadedness coming to the surface, (and I smacked my head really good recently!) but the book seems quite patronizing. Good review. Not so sure that I would read the book, however. 🙂 I am off to read your rant on Hari’s book now. 🙂

      1. I think some folk have such strong ideas on how they think things “should be”… And scarily is possible to find ‘evidence’ to back up those ideas…. Whether the evidence is backed up by science is another thing ..

  3. Yep, I agree. Obviously the authors haven’t suffered debilitating symptoms for any long period of time.

    Medication saved my life in terms of how I couldn’t engage in therapy before I went on meds.

    Lots lots lots of people need meds… would they shame people with diabetes for insulin?

    They set themselves up as a clinic with amazing therapists and they do this. Wow.

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