Life as Art: What is “Mental Illness?” and “What Does it Have to Do with Race?”


Mental illness shatters lives, but in the pieces, if one has heart and a strong stomach, the phoenix rises again into something entirely new.  Social media for me is the glue to the fragments that constitute the bits of a growing social life scattered across several different states and different social types of people.  Like a fern budding from a dark crevasse and reaching towards the light, I have been in a state of isolation for a couple of years and am just now reaching out honestly to others through digital means.  I have had many interesting experiences since starting the use of honest discourse on social media.  What originally started as an experiment in 2010 called the Art-Brain-Philosophy project has turned into a way of being.  In 2010, I had the crazy idea to record all of my thoughts on Facebook by answering the question, “What’s on your Mind?” honestly and then trying to embed the thoughts into a digital representation of the brain.  I worked on the idea in isolation and obsessively for bouts of time.  In 2011, I found a set of free MRI data from a brain and even started a path towards turning the digital fragments that I had collected from my Facebook page into a blog called The Vortex (Art-Brain-Philosophy Project) into a mouse clickable 3D representation of the brain with the thoughts embedded into it as text boxes.  When I look back at this post, I can see madness.  Sure, but I can also see the beginning of an interesting teaching tool.  I chose to blog about it to share how my life has healed and become so much more than the fundamentally narrow and status obsessed existence that we are taught to idolize by the prevailing strands of American thought.

On October 14, 2014, I attended a National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) meet in Decatur, Georgia.  At the meeting we talked about a variety of topic related to various experiences the various attendees and me have had.  From vocation issues to medical bills to symptoms, a camaraderie is established and shared at each meeting.  In my experience, as a person who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder I the meetings are extremely helpful sources for support.  During last night’s meeting, my friend (who has been sharing about a desire to writing a book on her experiences with schizoaffective disorder) and I talked about the idea of writing together.  We tossed around the idea of writing a blog together with anyone else in the NAMI meeting who is interested in contributing.  As an experienced blogger, I hope to introduce my friend to the modern world of e-writing in the 21st century.

A question that emerged from the conversation, that seems fundamental to the establishment of such a blog, is the question, “What are ‘mental illnesses’?”  As the title of the group NAMI contains the words “mental illness” you would think we would be able to immediately come to a precise definition of the name.  Not so…  No one in the meeting could provide a good definition.  Some candidates were:

1.  The Oxford English Dictionary definitions for “mental,” “illness,” “mental illness.”[i]

1.  Mental illness is a social construct.

2.  Mental illness is an excuse to sell psychoactive medication.

3.  Mental illnesses are brain disorders.

4.  Mental illness used to be called “demon possession.”

6.  Mental illness is a Western concept.

5.  … anything else you can come up with (please provide in the comments) …

Mental illness is both a subjective experience and an objective reality (at least for those who live under the veil of modern Western medicine).  For those who have been given labels such as schizophrenic, anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, manic depressive (bipolar disorder), schizoaffective disorder, etc. it can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to separate the subjective suffering from the objective Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders diagnosis category.  One of the goals of this blog is to decipher, outline, and explore our various perspectives on this definition.  As provided above, it may be possible to throw out various objective possibilities for what mental illness is.  Therefore, upon reading these ideas of what mental illness is it one might say that they understand.  However, the subjective experience of those who suffer from diagnoses are much more intricate, personal, and some might say twisted.

To me, mental illness means:

… on the negative:

1.  Social isolation and divorce.

2.  Losing jobs.

3.  Deep depression.

4.  Being disowned by my father.

5.  Having to move back home.

6.  Seeking pharmacological intervention and regular psychotherapy.

7.  Feeling high above the clouds with ideas, writing projects, the cure to the spiritual condition of Man, and scientific advances.

8.  … anything else I come up with on this blog …

and on the positive:

1.  Feeling in touch with the suffering of my fellow human beings.

2.  Reaching out for spirituality as a way for seeing the world.

3.  Exploring the worlds of philosophy and religion to seek out social frameworks for dealing with how society treats the weakened “other.”

4.  Realizing everyone is, deep down, experiencing just as much suffering as me.

5.  Learning how to write not just technical scientific papers, but also to write subjective narratives about various subjects I care about.

6.  Learning to see through the deep evil that is capitalism (anything that puts a dollar sign on Life mind as well be called “Satanically evil.”)

7.  Feeling in touch with those who are the targets of American war, racism, and sexism.

8.  … anything else I come up with on this blog…

I recently left my work place in the back of an ambulance and ended up in the Grady Hospital emergency room.  I am frustrated with how I have been dealing with stress.  I anticipate the next few weeks I will work to create better coping mechanisms.  One of which will be writing.  Please hold on for the ride and read along in our journey.  I am tired of seeing my life tossed around by forces internal and external to myself.  I want to take control of the ship that is my life and live out a life of service and compassion.  I am welcoming back into my life a regular meditation and exercise regime and hope to report back in future posts the benefits of these two additions to my life.  I would like to get back into rock climbing, academia, powerlifting, running, and living the high level life of the body and mind.  However, I am aware that life is there to be lived and enjoyed in whatever state one finds oneself in.  Happy living!

[i] Mentaladj.1 and n.

Pronunciation:  Brit. /ˈmɛntl/ , U.S. /ˈmɛn(t)l/

Forms:  lME mentale, lME– mental, 15–16 mentall, 16 mentalle.

Etymology:  < Middle French, French mental (1371 as mentel , 1457 as mental … (Show More)

A. adj.1 (In all senses except A. 4   and A. 6   predominantly used attrib.)

I. Senses relating to the human mind in the most general sense.


Pronunciation:  /ˈɪlnɪs/ 

Etymology:  adj. + -ness suffix.

The quality or condition of being ill (in various senses).

Mental illness   n. a condition which causes serious abnormality in a person’s thinking or behavior, esp. one requiring special care or treatment.

I am in sympathy with the cause of racial equality because of these experiences.  I have been thinking a lot about how I see schools in Atlanta unequal with respect to education, and I want to work to improve that situation.  My skin is not dark, but I have seen prejudice and ignorance.  The Art-Brain-Philosophy Project in its current incarnation is an experiment in living.  What would happen if everyone tried to be a little more honest and sincere?  Why arm yourself for the battle that is each day when you can trust in the kindness of the other?  A theme that I always come back to is:

It is harder to crack a prejudice than an atom.

Putting into words my support for the oppressed and identifying with this side is the first step towards a new, more serene way of being.  See the positives above in my list and you will see why I value my short bouts of eccentricity through ways of using digital means to communicate.  I am now in a place where I want to pick back up the Art-Brain-Philosophy Project in the brain imaging realm and try to create the original vision.  I am tutoring a family with kids that want to learn how to design video games.  I have started work with 3DS Max in this work and wonder if I could do something with that software that would help the Art-Brain-Philosophy Project reach reality?  Art is the only place where what is discarded by society as “mental illness” and “blackness” can reach the realm of “normality.”  I strongly support the creation of communities of trust and sharing around advancing the cause of embracing radically the “other” in all of his or her various colors and states.

This blog is a place where I will try to stick together these ideas into a cohesive unit.  I feel drawn to writing as a past time and perhaps as a profession.  I love being able to share the work of making life a better place for others through the written word.  Expressing what is hidden and revealing the connections between states of darkness and states of light in human life, in whatever form they arise.

Creative Commons License
InnerLight Enlightenment by Dr. William Kaya Erbil is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

About kayaerbil

I am a Berkeley educated chemistry Ph.D. who is moving into the area of working on developing appropriate technology for communities that are subjected to socio-economic oppression. The goal is to use simple and effective designs to empower people to live better lives. Currently, I am working with Native Americans on Pine Ridge, the Lakota reservation in South Dakota. I am working with a Native owned and run solar energy company. We are currently working on building a compressed earth block (CEB) house that showcases many of the technologies that the company has developed. The CEB house is made of locally derived resources, earth from the reservation. The blocks are naturally thermally insulating, keeping the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Eventually, a solar air heater and photovoltaic panels will be installed into the house to power the home and keep it warm, while preserving the house off the grid. A side project while in Pine Ridge is a solar computer. I hope to learn about blockchain encryption software for building microgrids. In addition, it is an immediate interest of mine to involve local youth in technology education.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.