Can Those With Mental Health Disorders Practice Stoicism?

The answer may not be straight-forward, but it's worth getting to

While modern Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) takes inspiration from Stoic thinking and ethics, outside of this specific form of psychotherapy Stoicism is often seen as counterproductive in the pop-therapy landscape.

In this week’s edition, rather than attempt to defend Stoicism from its contemporary detractors, I want to talk about whether Stoicism, actual Stoicism, can be successfully practiced by those afflicted by mental health disorders (such as bipolar disorder, ADHD, depression, and so on).

My hope is that, by the end of this edition, you understand that Stoicism doesn’t exclude those of us with “imperfect brains”, but is, instead, just as accessible (and therefore useful) to us as it is to anyone else.

I will start with the hardest pill to swallow…

The Ancient Stoics believed the mentally ill or disabled could neither become virtuous nor achieve eudaemonia

It can be difficult to read the Stoics on the topic of mental health and disability.

The Ancient Stoics believed that if one’s rational faculty was not properly functional, it could not be used to reason toward Virtue (and thus, a life worthy of being lived — eudaemonia).

The Stoics believed the only thing which was really our own, the only thing we had the ability to control, was our rational faculty — our brain (which they referred to as the hêgemonikon).

A properly functioning hêgemonikon was crucial to being able to reason and choose well.

If one’s hêgemonikon were damaged, then one would have lost both the ability to reason and choose well and, as a result, the ability to pursue and achieve Virtue or eudaemonia.

But the Ancient Stoics didn’t view anyone with such damage as wastes or as individuals deserving of scorn or condescension.

Quite to the contrary, they seem to have believed that there was little more deserving of our sympathy than a fellow human being who lacked the ability to work towards Virtue — and that such people deserved a special sort of care and support that could not be ignored.

As someone with ADHD, this is the most unpleasant part of Stoic orthodoxy to reason through.

I’m presently struggling through the grim realities of the United Kingdom’s National Healthcare System — access to my ADHD medication is behind a 2-year waiting list — and I feel, viscerally, the truth in what these Ancient Stoics were saying.

One cannot use their brain to overcome a dysfunction or affliction which arises from physical “damage” of that same brain — and if Stoic practice requires constant assessment and judgement of impressions (a practice known as prosochē), how consistently can one do that when the part of their brain involved in such a process is physically damaged?

New age therapists and mental health influencers have been quick to reframe ADHD as a “superpower”, but I feel this is a great disservice to those of us suffering with the condition.

Could you imagine calling bipolar disorder, chronic depression, generalized anxiety, or schizophrenia a “superpower”?

How about paraplegia?

It’s unimaginable.

You’d be decried (rightly) as a monstrous fool.

Mental health disorders are not superpowers, they are mental health disorders — and mental health disorders impact what our brains are literally capable of doing.

So, were the Ancient Stoics correct?

Do mental health disorders or conditions preclude someone from working toward sagehood? Toward the attainment of Virtue and eudaemonia?

The Ancient Stoics may have started out being correct, but I don’t think they’d be correct today.

The suggestion that mental health disorders or conditions preclude someone from Virtue or eudaemonia is, right off the bat, a tenuous claim if you believe (as I do, and as I’ve suggested elsewhere that the Ancient Stoics did) that sagehood and eudaemonia are not actual destinations but ideals that motivate action.

If a person with ADHD cannot become a sage, how is that any different than a person without ADHD if no one is actually capable of becoming a sage?

Yes, mental health conditions can slow one’s progress — but can they halt it completely?

I say they cannot.

And if I’m right, which I feel strongly I am, and if the point of Stoicism is progress along the path of the Prokoptôn, then isn’t any progress along that path in keeping with the Stoic philosophy?

If progress is the point then, no matter how much progress you make, aren’t you making progress and therefore behaving as Prokoptôn in the first place?

This is the very essence of Stoic practice.

I think the Ancient Stoics did hit on something important concerning the state of one’s hêgemonikon:

An afflicted (by a disorder) brain is a less functional brain than a brain not afflicted.

In ancient times I might have agreed with this — at least in theory.

However, we no longer live in ancient times.

With medication, a brain can resume normative function. With normative function regained, Prokoptôn can become more effective in their progress and make it further, perhaps faster, down the road toward the ideals I mentioned earlier.

This is why I view the reframing of mental conditions as superpowers as quite unfortunate — because it suggests one can overcome a condition of their physiology or psychology on brain power alone. This is a toxic, though often well-meaning, notion.

Such a suggestion sets the afflicted up for a precipitous fall when they finally realise the limitations of their physical bodies.

A sometimes deadly outcome.

In summary, the Ancient Stoics have become all but entirely wrong on the mental health front

We with mental health conditions cannot become sages, but neither can anyone else — so, in this regard, how different are we really?

We with mental health conditions will make slower progress (and less of it), but there is no arbitrary amount of progress one must make in order to be a Stoic. Progress along the path is progress along the path.

We with mental health conditions can improve our progress through modern medical treatment and I, for one, believe this is a message more people need to hear. We can be Stoics without medical and therapeutic intervention, but we can be more committed Stoics with those things.

Virtue and Stoic Eudaemonia are both beyond the reach of mortals, but all people are capable of making relative progress — and so all people are capable of practicing Stoicism.

You shouldn’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

Thanks for reading,
Tanner

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