Mental Health IV: Volition and Free Will
After discussing the three external factors involved in mental health, it's time to talk about volition. What exactly is the influence of our choices on our mental health? How exactly does mental illness affect free will?
The first thing to keep in mind is that volition and free will are not the same thing. Volition refers to the nature of our minds, i.e. our ability, and need, to choose. Free will refers to whether or not our choices effectively shape our lives. If I point a gun at your head, and tell you to choose between getting shot in the hand, or in the foot, I haven't taken away your volition - you're still capable of choice. I have, however, essentially taken away your free will, because the choice itself is irrelevant to the outcome - you will get shot and crippled anyways.
Human beings are not born with free will, which is why we do not allow children to be free. Free will is developed over time, as we develop our physical and psychological structures to a certain degree. From diet to drug-use, our choices alter these structures, and if they are sufficiently damaged, we lose our free will until they are restored to their original state. Just like a democracy can vote its way into tyranny, an individual can choose his way out of free will.
Mental illness reduces the scope of possible choices available to the individual - and the more severe the illness, the narrower the scope. An average alcoholic, for example, can choose not to walk into a bar. However, having walked into a bar and coming in contact with alcohol, he has no choice but to drink. A very severe alcoholic, on the other hand, will go so far as to drink his favorite bottle of perfume if that is the only alcohol in sight - while one who has undergone years of treatment, and developed certain psychic structures, is able to sit at bar with his friends, and order a glass of juice.
The most severe cases of mental illnesses completely strip away the patient's free will. A schizophrenic who has lost the ability to differentiate his own body from the chair on which he's sitting will not be able to make any effective choice. Like our perfume-drinking alcoholic, he can do nothing but rely on others to restrain him, and nurse him back to some semblance of free will using medication and other psychiatric procedures. In most cases, however, those suffering from mental illness do have free will.
A depressed individual cannot choose to get up from his bed, get dressed, go to work, have fun with his friends, and be generally productive throughout his day - he is simply unable to do so, and attempting it will only lead to failure, making him more depressed. He does, however, have the choice to get off his bed, shower, and brush his teeth, for example. Free will still exists while these small choices can lead to a better state in the future, where new choices will be available. The depressed patient who made these choices yesterday, is now able to exercise and attend a therapy session, and will be able to study and work tomorrow. This is what mental health professionals mean when they say "you can't treat a patient who doesn't want to be treated".
Proper philosophy is essential to this process. A schizophrenic who acknowledges the primacy of existence, and develops the habit of identifying his delusions and differentiating them from reality to the best of his ability, has a much higher chance of dominating his condition that a post-modernist who wholeheartedly believes consciousness creates reality. A mildly depressed patient who knows that actions should be planned on the long term is more likely to deal with his condition by seeking professional help, instead of developing a cocaine habit to temporarily numb his pain. In fact, it takes good philosophy to know you should be happy in the first place - I can't overstate the number of Christians or nihilists who endure depression because they think life on Earth is suffering.
- July 10th, 2020