Stoicism as Practiced by the Seriously and Persistently Mentally Ill
Ian Guthrie, BA
“My mother was driving me in today,” said “Adam” at the beginning of our men’s group session. “She was getting really frustrated by the morning traffic and people cutting her off. I was like, ‘There’s this book we are reading in group that you might really like! It’s by this smart guy named Marcus Aurelius and he was a Roman Emperor and a philosopher and he wrote a book called Meditations that is about controlling your emotions and not letting things that you can’t control bug you.’
“And she turned to me and said, ‘Are you getting smart with me?’”
We all laughed at the story, and I realized that it represented not only Adam’s understanding of what we were reading in Meditations, but an example of each member’s attempt to apply it to his daily life. In the previous article I wrote for this site (“Is Stoicism for the Mentally Ill, Too?”), I presented my perceptions of the effect of the clinical use of Stoic principles from the perspective of the clinician. This article is oriented towards the reactions of my clients, all of whom are diagnosed as seriously and persistently mentally ill (SPMI).
Recently, the group members shared what they were learning and taking away from the experience. Several individuals spoke up.
“I am learning to accept things that I cannot control, to not get angry and stuff,” said Adam. “I used to struggle with that a lot and let things affect me, but what is the point of getting mad about things that are going to happen regardless? This is helping me right now with my [terminally ill] grandmother. Sure, I’ll be sad when [her death] happens, but I think I’ll be able to accept it, because like we’ve been reading, death is natural.”
Adam is recalling passages from Meditations that address human mortality. “Death, like birth, is one of nature’s secrets” (iv. 5). He is reporting that his experiences with Stoicism have aided him in processing emotions more effectively than he was previously capable, and he anticipates that he will be able to do so in the future.
“Walter” announced that he found it interesting that Aurelius’ text is “from the old times, and it still applies today!” Aurelius speaks to the permanence of the world: “Everywhere there is change; and yet we need fear nothing unexpected, for all things are ruled by age-long wont, and even the manner of apportioning them does not vary” (viii. 6). The world in its essence does not change, and neither does the worth of Stoic principles.
Another client, “Henry,” told me that he has been enjoying the readings. “It points out how to successfully think…to change…and how to reason and consciously digest your day and your life.”
I admit that comment stunned me. Henry is diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a diagnosis known for hallucinations, delusions, and mood swings. Despite (or perhaps because of) his diagnoses, he values and places emphasis on the importance of being able to think clearly. He is not the highest functioning member of the group, though he does make great efforts to understand, to ask questions, and to interpret of passages as frequently as possible. Meditations encourages this level of evaluation, saying “if possible, make it habit to discover the essential character of every impression, its effect on the self, and its response to a logical analysis” (viii. 13).
Often my clients tell me that they wish they could stop taking their medications because they do not want to experience the side-effects that so many psychotropic medications have, such
as lethargy, weight gain, and impaired memory. Most have resigned themselves to the need for medications to keep their symptoms in check. Medication usage is a matter for clients to discuss with their doctors. My role as a Psychosocial Rehabilitation Worker is to help them increase their functioning by the development of coping skills, and in that capacity, I wonder what could a stoically-trained, yet seriously ill mind accomplish for itself?
Stoicism isn’t a treatment for mental illness, but it is a prescription for how to live life well. I’ve introduced my group to Stoicism in the hopes of giving them the tools necessary to begin using their innate human reason to conquer the irrationality that they experience. Every healthy human being experiences irrationality from time to time, but there are those of us who strive for higher functioning in order to further separate ourselves from “the unreasoning brute creation” (viii. 12). Those that experience irrationality to a diagnosable degree can have exactly the same goal and are capable of achieving levels of success.
As we concluded one session, “Charles” spoke up. He thanked me for teaching Stoicism to him and said, “I feel like I’ve matured since we started. When I was in my 20’s, I spent my time getting into drugs and it messed me up. This is the stuff I should have been learning!”
Ian Guthrie, BA, is a graduate student pursuing licensure as a professional counselor. He is a psychosocial rehabilitation worker for a community mental health center in Kansas City, Missouri.
In Buddhist mindfulness meditation there is also this ‘mantra-like’ “None of my business” which is meant to remind us to withdraw from and leave alone things we either cannot change or should not overly care for in the first place. Whenever I get the chance to teach this to kids it is on a platform in a busy railway station: when there is a delay of, say twenty minutes, people still keep looking at their watches or the platform clocks every two minutes. As if it made the train arrive any earlier. I usually then tell kids: “These are the people who eventually will end up in emergency care with a heart attack by the time they are forty”. It usually gives them an idea of practical stoicism … 😉 …
@ Dermot Gilley, I usually use the analogy of being cutoff in traffic and the futility and danger of indulging an emotional response, but I like the railway analogy, too.