Crazy Like a Fox

It is not that I am a great believe in the concept of “mental illness.” To be honest, I don’t actually believe there is such an animal (whoops!). Schizophrenia, psychosis, borderline, manic-depressive, these are basically labels. Demeaning ones too. Not that people do not experience all kinds of misery. Of the deepest kind. But whatever we call it, humans seem susceptible to many forms of deep unhappiness. Yet when we look at the lives of animals in the wild, we don’t find these states. OK, I know that this is very hard to prove. Who has followed wild animals in their natural habitat for years and on intimate terms to be able to say they develop nothing that resembles in any way human misery? Nobody. Yet scientists who observe wolves, and lions, and elephants, and the big cats, etc., do not report cases of what sounds similar to human “mental illness.” But when it comes to domesticated animals, dogs, cats, birds, we see what appears to be states very similar to human ones. Same is true for other domesticated animals. And of course animals in zoos, in circuses, and on farms, can go “crazy” as it were, experiencing the same kind of dysphoria that humans experience. Why? Because they have been traumatized in one way or another. Doesn’t this suggest that humans, too, may suffer from what people call “mental illness” because of trauma? Because they have been hurt in some deep way? I find the topic fascinating. One more reason to look to animals to understand ourselves.

About jeffreymasson

My new book BEASTS is out this March from Bloomsbury or the eBook
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10 Responses to Crazy Like a Fox

  1. Bang on Jeffrey. As you will know, Tomas Szatz had a lot to say about “mental illness”. The whole of DSM is a minefield and tons of pills are dished out as a consequence. I see that there are numerous “celebrities” now claiming to have bipolar illness – as if it’s the latest fashion. Having said all that, Kay Redfield Jamison’s account of her moods and madness in “An Unquiet Mind” was very moving.

    I cannot bear zoos, circuses,any event that uses animals for humans’ entertainment.

  2. Sono interamente d’accordo. Come Ferenczi ha mostrato chiaramente, la vita umana origina e si sviluppa in un ambiente traumatogeno. Noi chiamiamo “endogeni” gli stati di sofferenza mentale di cui ignoriamo la relazione con l’ambiente.

    I completely agree. As Ferenczi shown, the human life origins and develops in an environment traumatogenic.
    We call “endogenous” the mental pain states whose relationship with the environment we don’t be able to recognize.

  3. Raquel Medina says:

    I think the animal lives according to Nature. The human path going in the opposite direction and we must receive the consequences. How is our life? Everything is out of ourselves. A non-human animal is different.

  4. Anne Lindsay says:

    Hello, newbie to this blog : ) Very interesting points about trauma. I feel there is a large element of that in much human ‘mental illness’; possibly along with, in varying proportions, family influences, genetics/heredity, biological health, nutrition, substance abuse issues, etc.
    Some people seem more skewed to one apparent causative factor than another, and perhaps this is so for animals too. It amazes me how resilient people, and animals!, can often be in the face of appalling circumstances of neglect and often abuse as well.
    I too have some qualms about the ‘mental illness’ blanket approach … although I have no qualifications to say so, so perhaps that is arrogant. But it does seem very reductionist at times. And not sufficiently encouraging or allowing for the possibilities of emotional, behavioural, physical changes for the better – and even the ‘spiritual’ growth that can happen over the course of a lifetime for both human and animal beings. A label once applied, can be hard to shake off or even choose ourselves to grow beyond if we are heavily invested in it … especially if no-one else believes we, or the animal, CAN change or redefine ourselves, so this possibility may not be sufficiently fostered : )

  5. Emma says:

    I believe that what we call mental illnesses are very real things, it’s hard to understand. I have fairly severe anxiety due to a car accident I had a couple of years ago, I know how I feel and I know why. There is little I can do to control or change it. I can only imagine that if a non-human animal experienced a trauma such as that, they would have similar anxiety as it is a natural emotional response. After all they can fear, they can feel and they can learn.

  6. dianabletter says:

    Fascinating article, Jeff. I think that much of human mental illness does stem from a serious, earlier trauma. Are young animals traumatized in a similar way when they witness a gory attack on one of their own? Or do they accept it as part of nature?

  7. Jeffrey, Good to hear you alive and kicking.
    Surely some serious depression is in the ‘Genius Gene’ cyclic depression class, identified by a US woman researcher in the early 1980s. Mine has no external cause and I believe may not actually be a disorder. Some of us may be designed to be deciduous as distinct from modern life forcing us all to be ‘evergreen’ conifers, so to speak.
    I doubt whether I could have composed if I’d not had hellish depressionns through my teens on our Yorkshire farm, and for nearly half my life since!
    As an incredibly high achiever yourself, have you not had any form of repeating depression?
    How is your lovely Family in NZ? Nothing like happy carefree veggie kids, a good lass, and a purpose in life, to dispel or mitigate any gloom if it ever hits you?
    All the best from Anglesey, Wales,
    Malcolm (and Barbara),

  8. diana says:

    I believe what you say is absolutely true and, suffering from OCD is the result of very early trauma wherein I was blamed as ‘ruining’ my mother’s life by being conceived ‘out of wedlock’ and, not being able, as a toddler, to understand cause and effect, I assumed that I was a bad person who caused unhappiness in other people and that has, of course, made me extremely anxious of everything I do and to create bizarre rituals to try to counteract my apparent effect.

  9. Ashana M says:

    I suspect that our brains are complicated organs that a lot can go wrong with–more complicated and badly put together than most. In that regard, I think Gary Marcus is right. So, I think biologically based problems with though and behavior do occur. It’s just that human beings are tremendously good at taking care of their own, which means we don’t feed each other to the wolves when we start seeing things or just behaving badly. Consequently, mental illnesses don’t mean that we will starve to death or be eaten by wolves, which is what happens when most other species start to be a risk to the troupe or lose contact with reality. And that keeps it in the gene pool. On the other hand, I agree that most mental illness could be caused be trauma, but the worst traumas are inflicted by people. So it really goes back to the same thing. If hurting each other makes us crazy, we must be crazy to do–perhaps not as individuals, but as a species.

  10. Susan Bird says:

    Jeff, I’ve wondered about exactly the same thing for years. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an animal that is “mentally ill,” or suffers from OCD, ADD, etc., and I’ve wondered why that is. Are our brains that much different, or is it something else? I agree that it’s totally fascinating.

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