If “schizophrenia” and “bipolar disorder” and such are not real “biologically based brain disorders” or “biochemical imbalances” then what does account for the difficult experiences and problems that get people these sorts of labels?
One way of explaining them is as imbalances, though not necessarily “biochemically based” imbalances. (That isn’t to say biochemistry isn’t involved, since as living beings our bodies and brains function through biochemistry.) Instead, the idea is that in responding to life events, some of which may be difficult or overwhelming, our mind can go to extremes of one kind or another, and lose its balance. It can then be difficult, though not impossible, to get back to balance.
Obviously traumatic experience is the most obvious example of this. To get through a traumatic situation, people go to extremes of fight, flight, freeze, and/or submit, in order to survive. The very thing we do to survive may also threaten our wellbeing, so later we might go to an opposite extreme to protect ourselves from the first extreme. Pretty soon, we may feel crazy, and fear that we might be crazy drives us, and often the people around us, to even more extremes. Vicious circles are created.
“Flipping” from one extreme to another is pretty obvious in “bipolar disorder” as people go from very excited to very depressed and lethargic, etc. It isn’t so obvious in “schizophrenia” as the people with these labels often manifest two extremes at once, or they identify as one extreme while fearing persecution by another extreme that manifests as a “voice,” or some other combination. And things get more confused when mental health professionals label extreme versions of normal mental states as pathological, rather than understandable.
I believe the most humanistic way of looking at “mad” mental states is to see them as extreme versions of everyday mental states. When people look at them that way, they can see that they are not so different from other people, and that they do have the option of moderating their extreme states, of finding a middle ground, to come back to the world shared by others.
Of course, it isn’t always as simple as a need to move toward “balance.” Living creatures are not meant to be perfectly balanced; instead, as complexity scientists tell us, life happens “far from equilibrium,” or as a “balance between balance and imbalance.” We are moving systems, and total balance would mean perfect stillness, not a property associated with life! This means that people’s extreme states may also at times have something to contribute, and not just be a problem. So sometimes it is normality that is the problem, and being “more extreme” is actually wise or helpful in a given situation.
I have spent some time mapping out some of the issues people go out of balance around, and identifying what a middle ground might be. I have put many of these issues into a PowerPoint display, which is available here. I have found it helpful with people to just identify these issues (which are issues we all face) and help people see where they have been going to one extreme or the other, and to help them see they also have the option of trying out the middle ground. Because often when people are “freaked out” they and others around them can’t identify that option.
I think people are healthiest when they see themselves as having options, from the extremes to the middle, and they can pick what best seems to fit a situation. I hope the ideas I am presenting here will help some of you see more options, for yourselves and for those you help. There’s a lot more I could say about all this, so much so that I may write a book around this someday.