While working on an inpatient mental health unit many years ago, a social worker friend of mine and I were debating how to define mental illness. The official definition looks at various factors like personal distress, impaired ability to function, and social convention (what society considers abnormal). It was this last one that was giving us problems. I argued that social convention is a valid factor in determining what is considered mental illness. My friend wasn’t letting me off that easy.

“But what if your society is sick?,” she asked.

I’d never considered that before. But I’ve thought about it a lot since.

What constitutes a mentally healthy culture? What does a sane society look like? Can a country be sick?

If we apply the same standards to America as we apply to people, then America doesn’t look like a sane, mentally healthy society.

A sane society doesn’t have mass shootings nearly every week. Surely, this has caused many Americans personal distress. It causes all Americans to feel less safe. It has necessitated schools, businesses, airports, and government facilities to put in metal detectors, hire more security personnel, and conduct lock-down drills. This costs money and interferes with the smooth functioning of these facilities. So we can check off the boxes beside the “distress” and “impaired functioning” criteria.

A sane society doesn’t have so many of its people working two or three jobs just to keep roofs over their heads and food on their tables. This not only causes people personal distress; it also impairs families’ ability to function. How can a family function if the parents are working multiple jobs? How can these parents spend time with their children, teach them all those things kids need to learn: how to cook, how to do laundry, how to change a tire, and, most importantly, how to live ethical lives. When families are unable to function well, society suffers as fewer students graduate high school and college, and crime and poverty increases. The “American dream” becomes more difficult for people to achieve, and the cycle of poverty becomes even more difficult to break. Do these meet the criteria for distress and poor function? You bet they do.

A sane society doesn’t have a greater proportion of its population in prison than any other nation on Earth, many for non-violent offenses. Society pays the cost of incarcerating the inmates and the inmates’ families pay the price of their absence. Distress and impaired functioning? Yes!

A sane society doesn’t tolerate law enforcement officers killing black people when video evidence shows they were no threat to the officers’ lives. It demands equal justice for all. Does killing innocent people cause distress to their families and friends? Does it cause distress to fair-minded people everywhere?
Does it reflect poor functioning by law enforcement, and cause impaired functioning of those left in the wake of these deaths? Of course it does.

“But what if your society is sick?” By most prevailing mental health criteria, America is sick. Now, what do we do about it?


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