Black sheep and mental illness

In my more than 40 years as a psychologist I have seen more than three thousand people in my office. In addition I have been made familiar with the histories and clinical records of thousands more through my consulting work in psychiatric hospitals, teen residential treatment facilities, and alcohol and substance abuse clinics.

What have I learned from all of these people? First, that THERE ARE NO CRAZY PEOPLE, BUT THERE ARE CRAZY-MAKING ENVIRONMENTS; and THERE ARE NO MENTAL ILLNESSES, BUT THERE ARE MAD-MAKING HISTORIES.

Said another way: I HAVE NEVER, REPEAT NEVER, MET ANYONE WHO HAS BEEN LABELED AS MENTALLY ILL WHO DOES NOT HAVE A HISTORY OF (1) TRAUMA WITHIN THE FAMILY, E.G., BEING AN UNWANTED CHILD, BEING SEPARATED FROM ONE OR BOTH PARENTS, BEING TOLD THAT S/HE IS UGLY AND STUPID, OR BEING SEXUALLY ABUSED WHILE BEING TOLD BY THE PARENT THAT S/HE IS LYING ABOUT IT; AND (2) FAMILY VALUES AND RULES THAT INCLUDE HOW SUCH TRAUMA MUST BE DEALT WITH, INCLUDING THAT ONE SHOULD NOT TELL ANYONE WHAT IS GOING ON.

Not all families have a black sheep, but most do. This is the person, male or female, who refuses to live by the family rules, who insists on doing things his/her way, and who does not respect the person in his/her generation who has inherited the title of “rule-enforcer”–usually the oldest sibling.

Two hundred years ago these people would have left the family at an early age and gone west with the American expansion across the continent. Some men would have joined the army. In the United States of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries these black sheep are frequently labeled mentally ill, and they are forced to take medications that families believe will bring them back into line with family expectations.

All of this, and more, is what my latest book, “Healing the Hurting Soul: A Survival Manual for the Black Sheep in Every Family” is all about.