Friday 21 February 2014

Samuel Johnson and Mental Health

      Samuel Johnson has become a poster child for mental health. The combination of immense achievement and obvious mental distress has lead to him often being chosen to be a positive role model for those with various problems. The dual fact of him being long dead but also very well recorded has allowed enough evidence for people to attribute all sorts of mental illness onto him. Merely typing ‘Samuel Johnson Mental Health’ leads to a ream of disorders and mental illness that he has been retroactively diagnosed with, including;

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Tourette’s Syndrome
Disassociate Identity Disorder

    Yet he would never have considered himself mentally ill, nor were such concepts explained to him would he have even accepted the notion of mental illness.

      For a start, he would have had a serious problem with the notion of mental health. Health not only implies wellbeing but the normal and natural state, the phrase ‘mental health’ implies that a state of happiness is the usual one and mental illness to be an aberration of this. For the man who said that ‘life is more to be endured than enjoyed’, the thought that happiness was a standard state to deviate from would have been pure nonsense. Johnson strongly felt that life was a trial of misbegotten desire, where any wish could not be gratified by obtaining it and every joy was a much welcome distraction from the common state of anxiety and worry.

       I also think that this seemingly pessimistic view of life is a far healthier one then the current model, there is a hope in Johnson’s hopelessness that is strong, pragmatic and brave. For someone who accepts the implicit notion that the standard of human life is happiness, every instance of unhappiness, depression or anxiety is a tacit failure to be normal. The notion of mental health brings with it a desire to be happy that is as shifting as all other mortal desires and as likely to be disappointed.

     I think that metaphors are a very useful way of talking about mental states as they work in some way to circumvent those very mental states (a happy person and a sad person would define ‘contented’ in very different ways). In this I think the metaphor of mental health is a poor one as it implies and engenders passivity. A person who is sick has no power of being sick and little power over being better, it allows mental states to be only things that happen to you. Now, compare this to Boswell’s description of the struggles in Johnson’s mind;  "His mind resembled the vast amphitheater, the Coliseum at Rome. In the centre stood his judgement, which like a mighty gladiator, combated those apprehensions that, like the wild beasts of the Arena, were all around in cells, ready to be let out upon him. After a conflict, he drives them back into their dens; but not killing them, they were still assailing him." This is the portrait of a person who is an active participant in his mental state. 

       After reading Burton’s ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’ he summed up the advice as ‘be not idle, be not alone’ and improved this by saying, ‘when idle be not alone, when alone be not idle’. In Rasselas, the advice to the mad astronomer is to ‘fly to business or to Pekuah’, he was aware how his own depressions could be warded off with business and company - and was an active protagonist in the life of his mind. John Wain, in his biography of Johnson says, ‘he never imagined that we could be reasoned out of subjective states of mind. When melancholy lays seige, repel it with the methods that work best, not those that sound most impressive.’

Using a different modern metaphor, the comparison between depression and weather (another event that happens to the passive person), Johnson is facing his depression with a brolly.

     Of course sometimes the brolly was not enough. There were times when Johnson was overcome by the Black Dog. There were months where he was neither active nor in company, particularly following the death of Tetty and it was only the companionship of the Thrales that helped him move to his new stage of life.

       I am not saying that Samuel Johnson would have scorned help with his mental states and I am pretty certain he would have approved the use of certain pills and such to help, as he was very supportive of people’s methods to overcome the miseries of life. He thought it was perfectly reasonable the poor should drink and the rich game, if those were things that made life more bearable. However, were he to read the websites about his mental health I reckon there is one word he would use to describe it;

“Cant!” he would have roared, “Nothing but cant.”