Rethinking the goal of mental health interventions: Do we want psychopaths or mature people?

04-02-2019

"Our current mental-hygiene philosophy stresses the idea that people ought to be happy, that unhappiness is a symptom of maladjustment. Such a value system might be responsible for the fact that the burden of unavoidable unhappiness is increased by unhappiness about being unhappy." - Edith Weisskoph-Joelson

This was in 1955. Now in 2019, not much has changed in this regard. Many of the current mental health interventions have goals like “reducing anxiety” and “curing depression”. In fact, we are more serious about this project than ever. We compete with each other for how much our intervention tools reduce negative emotions: The less negative emotions, the better!

Negative emotion as an indicator of psychological problem is not entirely unreasonable. People who report extremely high levels of negative emotion almost always have significant problems in interpersonal and occupational lives. However, at the opposite end of the spectrum we don’t find psychologically healthy people. Instead, you find people who experience shallow emotions and bring trouble to others (e.g., psychopaths), and of course, the dead!

So, what is a good alternative indicator of mental health? In psychotherapy, regardless of its form, therapists help patients grow and develop. So, maturity could be the alternative. (By the way, there is no linear relationship between maturity and negative emotions.) Some of the qualities shown to accompany maturity are openness to experience, self-awareness, cognitive complexity, internal locus of control, and appreciation of others’ autonomy. These qualities seem to me to define mental health better than absence or low levels of negative emotions.

Reconceptualizing mental health has important implications for research as well as development of intervention tools. If the goal of intervention is not to reduce negative emotions but to encourage such qualities as openness, creativity, and internal locus of control, what would intervention tools look like? In video games, we have been witnessing a shift as they become more non-linear and open-ended. Although video games and mental health interventions are not intuitively linked, they share something important in common: They both attempt to tap into our deepest intrinsic motivation for growth and creativity. Perhaps game creators are ahead of us in this regard. If so, what can we learn from them?

Let us hear what you think in the comment! Also, if you want to know a whole new approach to the design of digital mental health interventions, read the recently published paper by Hanneke Scholten and Isabela Granic here. Until next time!

References

Pals, J. L., & John, O. P. (1998). How are dimensions of adult personality related to ego development? An application of the typological approach. In P. M. Westenberg, A. Blasi, & L. D. Cohn (Eds.), Personality development: Theoretical, empirical, and clinical investigations of Loevinger’s conception of ego development (pp. 113-131). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Weisskopf-Joelson, E. (1955). Some Comments on a Viennese School of Psychiatry. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 51, 701-703.

Author

Hiromitsu Morita

Researcher; blogger; explorer.

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