A Delete Button on Mental Illness

If there were a delete button on mental illness, would you press it?

I’m asking this because I am still bothered by a question I was asked several months ago. I was giving a mental health awareness talk in one of the colleges here, and during the open forum, one student asked me: “If there was a way to remove or modify the genes implicated in mental illness, would you be in favor of it?

Okay, so that question isn’t exactly proposing something as direct as pressing a delete button on mental illness, but it is along the same continuum. If we had the power to remove mental illness from all of humanity, should we?

Before we attempt to answer that, first, let’s get some things straight.

The development of mental illness does not solely rely on the presence or absence of certain genes. Sure, genetic influence does play a role—that much we know is true, especially for mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. However, the gene-environment interaction is so complex that it’s difficult to parse how genetic engineering will influence the development of mental illness.

Also, it’s unlikely that only a single gene would be identified as an etiologic factor in a particular mental illness. Usually, multiple genes are implicated, and the process of figuring out those exact genes is very slow, and difficult, if not impossible. So I think it’s safe to say we’re still far from the day when we have to decide on the issue of genetically engineering people to be “free” of mental illness, if we arrive to it at all.

Now, back to the question. Let’s just do away with the scientific and technical difficulties or impossibilities for a moment, and say that we do have it in our power to genetically remove/modify genes implicated in mental illness. Should we do it?

When I heard of the question during that forum, my immediate impulse was to say, “No, I am not in favor of that.” The ethical implications of such an action were too vast and intimidating for me to even start considering at that point, so I took the conservative stand. Let’s not play God.

What’s more, saying yes to removing/modifying a person’s genes felt to me like a rejection of that person. In agreeing to engineer their genes—their very building blocks—are we not saying that people with mental illness are therefore unfit to live with us as they are? Are we not sending the message that they have to be “fixed” first, before we consider them worthy of life?

But on my way home, as I pondered on the student’s question, I began to reconsider my initial arguments about it. Mental health law expert and advocate Elyn Saks, in talking about her experience of living with schizophrenia, said that if there were a pill she could take that would eliminate her mental illness, she would take it in an instant. Countless individuals suffer through the horrors of psychosis and other mental disorders, and if they could be saved from going through such maladies, shouldn’t they be freed from the struggle?

I keep going back and forth on this dilemma. And the main reason is that I happen to think that even mental illness, despite all its darkness and the suffering therein, has meaning and value. I always remember Mary Oliver’s words, “Somebody I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.” The following stand testament to this:

Poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who experienced psychosis, declined psychoanalysis, saying, “Don’t take away my devils, because my angels may flee too.”

Joshua Shenk, writing about Abraham Lincoln’s depression, discussed how depression forced Lincoln to reckon the purpose and meaning of life more intensely, and was thus driven to accomplish something worthwhile as he lived.

Philosopher John Gray believed that it was Winston Churchill’s depression that enabled him to be a good leader.

Writer Matt Haig said that he’s a writer not despite of his depression; rather, he became a writer because of it. He talked about how “Depression makes thinkers out of all of us,” and how it has forced him to experience the simple pleasures in life more intensely.

“You need to feel life’s terror to feel its wonder…I hate depression. I am scared of it. Terrified, in fact. But at the same time, it has made me who I am. And if—for me—it is the price of feeling life, it’s a price always worth paying. I am satisfied just to be.” ~ Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive

So if we take away mental illness from all of humanity, yes, we take away suffering and terror, but maybe we take away something valuable, too—something that forces us to look harder at life and why we’re living it, something that gives the positives meaning, something that drives us to dig deep and be better at this life thing.

I am ready to bet on the idea that if no form of mental instability or emotional upheaval ever existed in humanity, there would be far, far fewer great works of literature, art, and even invention that have enriched and elevated the way we live.

“Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence– whether much that is glorious– whether all that is profound– does not spring from disease of thought– from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect.” ~ Edgar Allan Poe

Maybe if we don’t brush up against our demons, we won’t ever find the best in us, either.

“But when I was at my lowest points I touched something solid, something hard and strong at the core of me. Something imperishable, immune to the changeability of thought. The self that is not only I but also we. The self that connects me to you, and human to human. The hard, unbreakable force of survival. Of life.” ~ Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive

After all my pondering and research, I still don’t know whether the delete button on mental illness should be pushed, if such a button existed. Maybe we should just be thankful we don’t have that choice, because maybe we’re still not wise enough to make the right one.

In the meantime, we do what we can.

And we gotta love the beauty and wonder of how the world continues to turn as it is, mess and all. ♠

This entry is part of my undertaking a 30-day challenge Matt Cutts talked about at TED2011. The premise is to “think about something you’ve always wanted to add to your life and try it for the next 30 days.” I am challenging myself to post one blog entry a day for 30 consecutive days. 

Today is Day 17.

About the Author •

33 thoughts on “A Delete Button on Mental Illness

  1. Pingback: A Delete Button on Mental Illness — InkBlots and IceBergs – burndoubt

  2. Oh my goodness, I absolutely loved this. I have pondered this question many times over throughout my life and I end up coming to the same conclusion, my struggles have created who I am today. I would not have the depth and wisdom I have now if it hadn’t been for the darkness. This post was wonderful, and I LOVED all the quotes and examples you used.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for reading and for sharing your thoughts on this!

      “…my struggles have created who I am today. I would not have the depth and wisdom I have now if it hadn’t been for the darkness.” —
      I keep hearing this from others, too. If we simply peered into the tunnel and were given the choice whether to walk through it or not, a lot of us wouldn’t, especially if we saw the kind of struggle that awaits. But some things in life force us through that tunnel, and getting out of it, we look back and see that it was the experience that molded us. I’m glad to hear you managed to gain wisdom out of it. ❤

      But the downside is that not everyone who's forced through that tunnel get to the other side…Some tunnels may be darker than others, more difficult and more dangerous. So it's still a question in my head whether it would be better if such harsher fates are not placed on people. Then again, there's no telling how each person would handle the challenges they're given…some are built by it; others are ruined.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You are so very right. It is so multifaceted there is no way to have a total yes or no right or wrong answer for this one. So many different struggles and so many different people. What an introspective thought provoking question though, it really makes you look at what you’ve been through and judge worth of your struggles. Again, this post was phenomenal. Thank you from sharing 🙌🏼

        Liked by 1 person

  3. You touch upon the continuum of behavior that at one end is mental illness, but at the other end, genius. That aspect, in concert with the fact that our genome and its “junk” dna, is still a mystery to us. Removing some debilitating genetic feature, in theoretical isolation, may produce side effects, repercussions which might not manifest for weeks or years.
    The precision of the button is key. If the button could be made exact — then who would deny anyone their press?

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Removing some debilitating genetic feature, in theoretical isolation, may produce side effects, repercussions which might not manifest for weeks or years.” ~ This is another great point! The repercussions may come later, even generations later.

      I think the continuum is more like mental illness and genius may be on the same end (and stability/normalcy is in the other end). And yes, the precision which would allow the taking away of what’s debilitating, while leaving what allows genius/profound/creative thinking, would be ideal. The problem is if what’s debilitating is exactly the same thing that allows genius/profound/creative thinking…

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Arlene. There’s still a lot that’s not understood about mental illness, especially by the general public. So much work to do in advocating for mental health issues and removing the stigma around mental illness. By being part of this conversation, you’re educating yourself and starting to become an advocate, too. So thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love that Edgar Allan Poe quote. It immediately reminded me of something I wrote down during a particularly poignant anxiety attack.

    Overall, I think it’s a really interesting topic to talk about and you did a good job articulating your viewpoint, well done.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Unpleasant moments, like Lincoln’s, often bring so much positive. I wouldn’t trade my loneliest times for happier ones. But some depressions are so severe that I think an off button would be great.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What a charged question. As someone who has spent the last couple years struggling with mental health and come through to a spot where I feel stable again, I would say no to the delete but because of the reasons you highlighted in your quotes. However, I also think that if we could put something in place (more like a help button) that is easier to access and draw strength from that I might advocate for that option. Maybe. Great post, thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really appreciate your insight on this. I didn’t know whether there are actually those who would say no to the delete button, if offered that choice. But I am seeing now that there are people who do appreciate the “gifts” of mental health struggles.

      I think the help button idea is brilliant. Not to cut people away from the struggle entirely, but maybe just something that’ll allow them to catch their breaths when necessary. Some forms of mental illness are so debilitating that the person no longer has enough in him/her to turn the struggle into strength.


  7. My daughter suffers from anxiety and depression. She’s considering medication at the moment, but one of her concerns is that it will affect her personality, take away or mitt something(s) that makes her who she is. Also, that it may do the same thing with parts of her anxiety that intimately serve a positive purpose in her daily life, for example, her organization, thoroughness, etc. It’s a touch question, but in her instance, she’s say no, she wouldn’t want to be able to obliterate it, only remove its debilitating characteristics.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I think we all have depression, but like all things in life, some have it really bad, some have it really good, and then there are the many in the middle.
    We only ever see the extremes of anything, and if we don’t have it bad ourselves, we assume that those that do, have a problem. And as you have so saliently pointed out, it is the making of us. I find that those who have been down those extreme paths have much more empathy because of it, found that place within because of it, and found much more compassion, for themselves and others…because of it 😀
    A pill…that’s a tough one. But if I said to you that there is now a pill to cure a cold or the flu, would you take that? Even though those very thing keeps our immune system very strong. Without the colds or flu we would most probably start dying from much more simple things like infections or even something simple like an ant bite.
    Big question…and a great post 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, you raised another important point: Mental illness and mental health are less of a dichotomy and more of a continuum. People have varying degrees of depressive, anxious, paranoid (etc.) tendencies. How are we to judge the level at which something becomes “too much”, becomes an “illness”? That still is a question in psychiatry, when it comes to diagnosing mental disorders. But the point stands, whatever people with mental illness have, those without also have, only in different degrees.

      Well, if I knew the suffering I’d have to endure with the cold/flu, I’d probably take the pill. But I would then not know how much stronger I could’ve been were I willing to go through the illness instead. That’s the thing, we often choose the “desirable” choice, not knowing it ultimately ruins us. It’s often better that we don’t get to have a choice, because then we are forced through things we wouldn’t have chosen for ourselves, and yet find out later that those were the best for us.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I am one who struggles with mental illness. Doctors have diagnosed me with all different terms for my 35 years of my life. I have gone from schizophrenia to bipolar to Major Depression with OCD and PTSD. This last diagnosis seems to be the most accurate. But all this said, I do not believe anyone should be treated or think that a diagnosis defines them. In my mind, the terms are only a guide-line to help find the most effective medications and therapies. In light of all I have been through, I would never trade in my “illness.” This is a part of who I am. It allows me to understand and empathize more with people, with and without mental illness. It has allowed me to identify a purpose in my life. Maybe not every purpose I am meant to have, but it gives me direction. I have met so many people, like Patrick Kennedy, who give me inspiration to keep fighting the stigma in our culture. Without the darkness, how are we supposed to see any light? A dark sky allow us to see the stars. A dark tunnel allows us to see the light at the end. A candle burns brighter in the darkness. We need our dark moments to learn and grow.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “The terms are only a guide-line to help find the most effective medications and therapies” –> I couldn’t agree more! Thank you so much for sharing your personal insights on this. We need more people like you with courage to speak up on these issues. The perspective you shared about how mental illness allowed you purpose and direction is so inspiring. Indeed, our darkest nights could be the best backdrop so our inner light could shine even brighter.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I Personally can understand your situation… I studied psychology as well when i started college for healthcare com buy realized after a few electives in psychology what i found to be my calling. Long story short i switched majors for my bachelors… But i have discovered that i have mental illness… 3 maybe 4 separate kinds.. But without my ilnesses who would i be creativity… My humor that is dark but still me… And my heart… That is riddled with pain but makes me who i am..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for sharing your experience! It’s been enlightening to me, learning about how others think with regard to their mental health struggles. Your courage to stand by who you are no matter what is admirable and inspiring.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s