Indicator species — By Steven Morgan

Steven has been a guest contributor numerous times now and I never stop delighting in how he sees the world. For all his pieces on this blog see here. Most of those pieces are by him. I think two of them simply speak of his work, but it was the easiest way for me to direct you to his pieces.


By Steven Morgan

The world is unthreading, vomiting weather, exploding with extinction, and our culture is squeezing organs of autonomy in a vice, and our families are split-screen labs of violence where unacknowledged fantasies breed monsters, and our religions sling catch-phrase values along a stock ticker, and our resources choke the soil, and every building erects higher than the last, and the silent blue sky is chopped by propellers and astro-engines blowing, and yet still, still when my mind mimics collapse and reproduces with shards the absolute devastation around me, there are human beings getting rich by swearing all I need to do is think differently.

Indicator Species

We need a new conversation in this country about the cause of mental health problems. The rate at which Americans are being diagnosed with psychiatric disorders and taking psychiatric medications has skyrocketed into crisis, and the simplistic notion that biology determines behavior is quietly altering our conceptions of humanity.

To be sure, digging up the roots of what gets called mental illness is an epic journey without many clear answers. It is impossible to separate individuals from their surroundings, so it is impossible to discern exactly which experiences and interactions lead to emotional and mental extremes.

However, one thing is clear: as long as the culture around us is broken, individuals will break, a process that is proportional and growing. Certainly, if we eliminated abuse, war, greed, racism, sexism, broken families, ecocide, monotonous wage labor and egoism, we would see a massive reduction in what gets called mental illness. But these bigger picture problems are overwhelming and require an enormous responsibility from all of us to fundamentally change, so instead they are often cast into the background in favor of blaming an individual’s brain or genes.

Thus, we are ‘Depressed’ not because the world is being destroyed while we sell our hours to mindless routines, but because our brains are too weak to handle it. We are ‘ADHD’ not because our culture slams us with an average of 3000 media messages a day, but because our brains are too weak to handle it. We are ‘Borderline’ not because we were beaten and neglected by our parents, but because our brains are too weak to handle it. We are ‘Schizophrenic’ and ‘Bipolar’ not because we were traumatized or overwhelmed by the madness of our society, but because our brains are too weak to handle it.

Instead of taking a ruthless moral inventory of our culture, families, societies, economics, religions, education systems, and pointing the finger outwards, we do it of and to ourselves, and now of and to our biology. Choosing to drink alcohol is a disease. Shopping compulsively is a disorder. An inability to solve math equations is criteria for a medical diagnosis. Everyone is mentally ill – that is, every individual except the sum of our parts.

Along this line of thinking, I have come to perceive most people labeled with major mental illness as an “indicator species.” This term is borrowed from the environmental movement, which applies it to those species who are acting abnormally or dying because of climate change. Many people labeled with mental illness are also indicating on an individual level much more collective problems. Through their innate sensitivities, they are penetrated by the dysfunctions of our culture until they inhabit them.

Thus, instead of separating traumatized people into categories of abnormal psychology, we should be listening to their stories as reflections of ourselves. We can then begin a dialogue that roots out mental health problems from their sources and addresses them holistically. This process would entail envisioning what healthy families, healthy communities, and healthy cultures look like, then framing the suffering of people who are most afflicted as an indication of whether or not those ideals are being met.

Of course, diagnosing traumatized people with brain diseases, controlling them with medication and soulless therapies, then warehousing them into mini-institutions is the easier option. In today’s America, where truths of hardship are often buried beneath the promise of consumerism and capital, most people prefer not to face the complexities of rape, violence, and community breakdown. It’s called denial, and it works – as long as the people who are oppressed remain voiceless.

But people labeled with psychiatric diagnoses are organizing and rising. We are finding our voices and making harmonies outside the dominant tune. Some of us are no longer willing to submit to other people’s explanations of our existence, yet we are also taking personal responsibility to live well. In a decade, many of the millions of children who are now forced to take powerful medications will join us, and there will be an outcry too loud to ignore.

In the meantime, let us start a new conversation in this country about mental health that weaves people who break down into the interconnected fabric of American life. And please, ask us to define our experiences and needs, not the ‘experts’ on us.

7 thoughts on “Indicator species — By Steven Morgan

  1. I found this bit of Steven’s writing to be utterly brilliant. Packed in this short piece was a concentrated, well written, intelligent summary of so much that I believe was waiting to be expressed. I see it as an important tool or stepping stone for understanding the bigger picture. I know it will remain a touchstone for my further studies. I suspect, given this tantalizing tidbit, it’s just the tip of the iceberg of what he is able to understand and express. Wow, thanks.


  2. I do think I need to think differently though, differently about the rest of humanity, differently about the world I live in, differently about who I am.

    Neither money nor our passion will accomplish anything with the same old mind set. Money and passion are useful when sent out with Love, Peace and Compassion. I can see attitudes of greed and fear in other holding them back but my attitudes of greed and fear hold me back too. My pain infects the world and that can be either for the good or the not so good. My action springs from my mental picture of the world. What I give out comes back to me one way or another.

    To look at the world honestly and still not want to blow most of it to bits… that takes courage.


  3. Thank you so much for writing/posting this piece. It is profound, compassionate and informative!


  4. Seems like we keep putting such a large part of our population outside of society thru prisons and institutions and the like that the “real world” is there for fewer and fewer people. Now the real world is isolate from “the real world” for many people. Where does that leave both the isolated and the non isolated? It seems like neither world is real. If we could learn to tolerate differences we’d be closer to an actual real world. How small we have become.

    Perhaps if I see that we all have a label I could push past labels as defining you in my mind and label you as human being above all your other labels.


  5. I am not sure that industries or social organization would tolerate whole people in practice. Damaged people are manipulated by media (even an article as well-intentioned as this one), damaged people buy things, and damaged people listen to what they are told since they are filled with self-doubt.

    It is hard to see how the diagnosed should organize and rise, at least when the proposed solution here is to have a conversation with society. Those conversations at best would be on the same forms of media that are bombarding others (like here on the internet) and given the tenor of the article, would lead to the kind of passionate clash of different ideologies and viewpoints that get people hospitalized.

    Some of our problems seem to be based in a simple equation in some respect, which is the greed of the medical industry, that doesn’t stop just with doctors and hospital administrators. It exists anywhere you go here, it exists here because it is the basis of our society. We might as well shoulder the cause of the fight against greed at the expense of humanity.


  6. Steve, I salute you with the overabundance of my mad, hysterical, cataclysmic heart. I am so proud to be one of the Indicator Species. (I think we should start a new movement.)


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