A Jungian Approach to Mental Illness

by : John Betts

All of us suffer from some form of emotional distress at some stage. Some forms of distress can last longer than they should and may significantly impair our everyday functioning. If this persists, we may be suffering from a mental illness or mental disorder (like depression, or anxiety). We can better understand this by comparing a mental illness such as depression, with a case of the flu – it pervades our daily life with painful symptoms.

The traditional medical approach to mental disorder is that the symptoms need to be eliminated as soon as possible, then the neurochemistry of the brain needs to be altered to stop the mental illness. Well that sounds reasonable enough doesn’t it? The problem is that traditional medicine does not seem to be able to deal with the wide variety of mental issues we face, nor are they able to keep people symptom-free. There seems to be something more to this problem.

The Jungian approach to mental disorders is quite different to traditional medicine. Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist and founder of Analytical Psychology, believed that when we suffer a mental disorder, the psyche (the mind and the body) are trying to work through some issue. The nature and symptoms of the mental disorder tell us a great deal about the nature of the suffering. What distinguishes the Jungian approach to this problem is that Jung felt that the elimination of the symptoms prevents insight into the reason for the illness in the first place – i.e. the mental disorder is purposive, functional and wellness-oriented – the psyche is trying to heal itself through this illness.

Let’s think about flu again – the symptoms of flu are unpleasant but they are purposive and functional. The body raises its temperature (a fever) when it detects the flu virus in an attempt to kill it (viruses can’t stand high body temperature). The runny nose and headache are also attempts at eliminating the virus. We feel tired because our body is involved in emergency work, using energy over and above our normal needs. The symptoms are clearly functional and an attempt at healing. Why not view mental disorders in the same way?

Let’s take depression – we feel tired, don’t want to speak to anyone, shut ourselves away in a dark room, switch off the TV, stop working and feel hopeless. These are all terrible symptoms, but what are the symptoms making us do? They make us think about ourselves and examine issues in our lives that we may be ignoring (say for example a difficult time in childhood). When we address these issues, we often find that the symptoms reduce. This is by no means a complete overview of mental disorders or of the Jungian approach, but it does give you a sense that sometime a long-lasting emotional upheaval has a purpose. Ideally, we should contact a Jungian Analyst and talk through some of these issues and make up our own minds.

John Betts is a Diploma Candidate in the Jungian Analysis training programme in Zurich, Switzerland. He has a private practice in Victoria, BC, Canada. He may be reached through his website at www.jungian-analyst.ca