Existential Murder: The Dehumanizing Concept of Mental Illness

The idea that mental anguish is an illness is dehumanizing and destroys the concept of what it means to be a person. The concept of “mental illness” creates a less-than-human creature whose distressing feelings and behaviors are illegitimate. For the existentialist – feelings of loneliness, boredom, despair, and meaninglessness, are central to life. They are problems to be overcome, not diseases to be cured.

Existentialism is a philosophy that, reacts to an apparently absurd or meaningless world by urging the individual to overcome alienation, oppression, and despair through freedom and self-creation in order to become a genuine person1. Viewing life through the existentialist lens, the concept of “mental illness” is a form of existential murder of personhood, the human spirit, and the soul.

For the existentialist, mental anguish is part of life. Only by experiencing anxiety, depression, and alienation would one move to confront these existential problems through self-creation.

The existentialist embraces life, but more than that, he accepts responsibility for his life. Whether he makes poor choices and lives a poor life, or chooses to live a genuine flourishing life – what he does with his life is up to him.

Life is no picnic. We are thrust into an uncaring world; a world that is often hostile to our very existence. In order to live a flourishing life, we must wrestle with the fundamental problems in life: creating meaning, confronting one’s own finite existence, and overcoming loneliness and boredom. We can choose to live like the herd and simply go through the motions, or we can choose to live life on our own terms.

Feelings of despair, alienation, and meaningless are fundamental to human existence. Alleviating such feelings is what motivates a person to create meaning for oneself. It is no surprise that those who fail to find answers to life’s existential questions find themselves in despair. For the existentialist, mental anguish is an adaptive response to failing to devise answers to life’s problems.

People often say that this or that person has not yet found himself. But the self is not something one finds, it is something one creates. – Thomas Szasz

The Dehumanizing Concept of Mental Illness

The word “mental illness” is an attempt to portray unwanted emotions and behaviors as if they are illnesses that require medical treatment. As Thomas Szasz pointed out in The Meaning of Mind, the mind is an immaterial concept – it cannot be diseased.

The concept of a sick mind is a categorical mistake. A mind can only be sick in the same sense that a joke or an economy can be sick. Looking for a medical cure for a sick joke doesn’t make any sense. You cannot “cure” a mind, as you cannot cure a joke. A joke is sick because the person hearing the joke has values that he judges the joke by. A mind can only be sick in the sense that an outsider has values by which he judges another’s thoughts, feelings, or behaviors as unusual, distressing, or deviant.

Those who promote the idea of mental illness are guilty of existential murder. They destroy the concept of personhood, creating a zombie-like creature – a slab of meat, bones, and brains that simply follow biochemical signals. The promoters of mental illness destroy the concept of personhood, the human spirit, the soul, free will, personal responsibility, and self-determination.

The idea of mental illness creeps into every facet of modern-day life. Instead of a person who is intensely interested in a single topic, we have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Rather than a person who cannot sit still and has lots of energy, we have ADHD. A man who likes to have too much sex is a Sex Addict. A woman who has too little sex has Arousal Disorder. A person sad about his life circumstances has “clinical depression”. Nicotinism, caffeinism, and alcoholism are all diseases that cause a person to consume too much of something that he enjoys. The list is endless. Promoters of mental illness will not stop until all human behavior is classified as a disease. A disease that can be cured with the help of the promoters of mental illness, of course.

A Person Is Not a Machine

A Person is not an elaborate machine. A person has reasons for his thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. A person makes choices. We feel depressed, anxious, and lonely, and we have reasons for feeling that way. To suggest otherwise to turn the concept of a person on its head. If we are anxious it is usually because we are overemphasizing the evaluation of others. If we are depressed it is often because we are making demands on ourselves, the world, or life itself that cannot be attained.

We alone are responsible for the life we chose to live. We are responsible for the judgments we pass on life and ourselves, and the seriousness with which we accept the judgments of others. Life may be difficult, but it is not a disease to be cured, it is a task we are faced with. Life presents us with problems to overcome.

The most pressing problems are existential problems, not mental diseases.

  1. Irwin, William. The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism without Consumerism (p. 4). Wiley. Kindle Edition. https://amzn.to/2GNNVLN 

7 thoughts on “Existential Murder: The Dehumanizing Concept of Mental Illness

  1. “Life may be difficult, but it is not a disease to be cured, it is a task we are faced with. Life presents us with problems to be overcome.”

    I agree very much with this nice summary of yours. I understand your criticism of the facile use of “mental illness” labels, which are so casually used by so many today, who have no clinical training nor experience; and I agree with that critique. However, I also know that there really is/are mental illness/illnesses, caused either by chemical imbalances in the brain, or physical trauma to it. Diseases of this kind can so impair the functioning of the brain – the ability to perceive reality, and analyze one’s behavior – that the ill person is robbed of the ability to conceptualize, plan and act as you recommend. So, I would temper your reasonable critique of the casual pop would-be psychologists who fling a label at any slight variation of human thought and behavior they may disfavor, with acknowledgement that there is a much more severe level of brain-injury, which in many instances robs its sufferers with the ability – with the equipment – to perceive, plan and act to undertake the “task we are faced with” in Life, of facing our “problems to be overcome.”


    1. Thank you for the feedback. Unforrunatley anytime someone uses the word “clinical”, it is used to assert some type of authority or seriousness when there isn’t any. We don’t have clinical malaria for example, we just have malaria. Only pretend diseases need extra words like “clinical”.

      To your point about chemical imbalances. The chemical imbalance hypothesis of mental illness has never been shown to true. They looked for these so-called imbalances and never found them. Only the most uneducated physicians still hold to this belief. I’d recommend reading, “Anatomy of an Epidemic” by Robert Whitaker, or watch an inteview with Robert here https://youtu.be/2hUltqHaGTA. Psychiatrist Jim Van Os shows that even schizophrenia is not simply a chemical imbalance here https://youtu.be/sE3gxX5CiW0. You can also see videos from TED of a woman who overcame voices in her head without drugs, by understanding her horrible life experiences and abuse in a new way https://youtu.be/syjEN3peCJw.

      On the other hand, I believe that personal experiences affect our body, and of courses the brain as well. When we win a sports game or get a promotion, it of course, affects the chemicals in the brain – in a good way. Does that mean there is a disease process at work? Of course not. It is only when the experiences are negative that we diagnose normal health brains as “diseased”.

      Brain injury is another matter, in the realm of neuroscience, and hence, not in the “mind”. If you can produce a real test that can diagnose a disease, then it ceases to be a mental disease, just as when they found out in the late 19th century that syphilis was the main reason many people in mental hospitals diagnosed as schizophrenics were acting strangely. But we have no such test with mental illness. It is all diagnosed via a fiat manual called the DSM. Those who produce the manual decide what is a disease, they do not discover diseases based on real tests.

      So while I agree that people really do suffer in this life, and sometimes suffer in ways that appear to be irrational to the outsider, they are not irrational when we look at the lived experience of those who suffer. I also want to help those who suffer in real ways, which is why I recently published How Stoicism can help you combat anxiety and depression

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with that only to a certain extent. I don’t think a more existentialist view and treatment of so-called mental illnesses like anxiety or depression is totally contradictory with the notion of illness. What’s problematic here is not the existence of mental illnesses in my opinion, it’s the definition and practical utility of this word.

    There are degrees of pain, of impairment, of delirium where the soul/mind is obviously “dysregulated”, something is going on that doesn’t originate in the body, and creates great suffering and disruption in the life of a person. Whether it can be called an illness is a very complex problem, but at least what it means is : this person cannot do everything on his/her own and needs a supportive response from the collective.

    And although the “power to diagnose” is a huge one and should be used with much more wisdom and sense of responsibility by those who detain it, a diagnosis of illness, per se, can also help a person on a more existential level to reclaim a sense of being a person and discern the powers of one’s own spirit still alive among the shreds of a psychological wreckage. For every ill person, whether it’s physical or psychological, there is always room for redefining oneself, one’s future, one’s values, one’s core elements that have precisely NOT been destroyed by the catastrophy, of internal or external nature.

    The problem is not the existence of such diagnosis. It’s that they shouldn’t be mistaken for identities or sentences for life, nor by psychiatrists neither by patients. They shouldn’t be used as tools of power devoid of any human dimension. But I don’t agree that there are no mental illnesses or conditions, or that the concept of illness is totally irrelevant when it comes to the suffering of the soul. Over-medicalization of human affects in our world is definitely a huge problem and even a dangerous form of dehumanization. But one who really needs help and immediate support from collectivity should not be turned down with only existential prescription and a lecture on one’s ontological solitude.

    The trap and difficulty with “mental illness” is that it indeed doesn’t have the same nature as a strictly physical one. It is not in the same way an illness and doesn’t stand purely as an observable and individual object. It is an illness manifested in the individual under the form of intense suffering and unspeakable wounds, that also points out to an extended world of dysfunctions, to extended “illnesses”, of the collective, of the family, of the general environment and the contingency of history. What’s needed would be a deeper understanding of this articulation.

    The paradigm on which psychiatry defines mental illness is fucked and shockingly reductive, that doesn’t mean that the very existence of mental illness, or mental health, is a fiction in itself.


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