Therapists Blog

Why Do We Fear Psychosis?

Why do we as a society fear psychosis so much? The reaction to the word "psychotic" is often one of overt horror, the sight of psychosis expressed can make others recoil, cross to the other side of the street, negate the humanity of the individual who is mumbling to himself or responding to visions. And because of this sense of social horror, those diagnosed with schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder are often taught to keep these maladies quiet, where society can speak much more freely, relatively casually, about cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, expecting commiseration around these afflictions. It is not uncommon to hear those who suffer from psychotic episodes feeling instead alienated, stigmatized, even cast out of what it is to be human.

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that a psychotic episode is extremely foreign to the average person, and there we might look for an answer to the riddle of why, why is the psychotic so reviled? But a little knowledge of the subject will actually point us in the opposite direction. Society rejects so forcefully those who endure psychotic episodes because society fears these episodes, not because they are far away but because they are very close. Consider how many different paths can lead the mind towards psychosis, temporary or otherwise: The use of hallucinogens, the use of various other substances without explicit hallucinogenic properties (such as alcohol) or the withdrawal from such substances, being in a radical mood state such as mania or depression, extreme stress that results in shock, head trauma or dementia that results from a variety of diseases, delirium that is experienced in a high fever or during or after anesthesia, and in the elderly a simple urinary tract infection. There is something about our minds that is vulnerable to the state of psychosis.

Psychoanalytic thought leads us to yet a deeper truth: we are vulnerable to psychosis because all of us experience it in the course of our normal development. When a child shakes with fear about the monster in the closet, she demonstrates a delusion, but because it is age appropriate, we all accept that she put the monster there for a good reason. The adolescent who is sure he is going to be famous appears pretty delusional but most know not to burst his bubble. Delusions do not end with the beginning of adulthood either, as many will rally around concrete beliefs that others find bizarre and in violation of the rules of rationality. Consider how one religious system looks to the followers of another. But when society accepts such beliefs as tolerable, there is a kind of contract amongst us to label certain people only "misguided" and to maintain a strong split between normalcy and psychosis. Surely, we all have the capacity to hallucinate too, as we do so every night with our head spinning vivid pictures in its time on the pillow. Dreaming sometimes gives way to edge-of-sleep hallucinations, false things we see in a half-waking state, which is estimated to occur in as much as 40% of the population.

And of course, there are the psychotic things we do that are very beneficial to society and well embraced in humanity: the novelist scribbles furiously, creating strange stories in her head, laughing or crying as she feels the rhythms of the lives of these people, she seems to commune with but who do not exist! The abstract painter can stand for hours in front of a canvas, see shapes in its blank spaces, and trace out a picture that for some reason has to be a certain way, and yet what compels this is a force that eludes the rational mind. Our fear of psychosis has much to do with a fear of mysterious processes in ourselves, and connects to society's frustration with "irrational thoughts." So, some of your thoughts are irrational, of course they're irrational, there is a space within you of symbol and myth and dreaming and creation that is much deeper than the mind that reasons.