As recent mental health policies for schools in England suggest, mental disorders are often thought to be capturable by observing a person’s behaviour. Examples (DfES, 2018, p. 14) include “emotional states (fearful, withdrawn, low self-esteem)” as well as individual (“aggression and opposition; habitual body rocking”) and interpersonal behaviours (“overfriendliness; demonstrating excessively 'good' behaviour; failing to seek or accept appropriate comfort or affection; coercive controlling behaviour”). This can also be seen in cognitive behavioural therapy, which is often the standard practice for dealing with mental health in schools as well as national healthcare providers (e.g. DfES 2020; NHS, 2019). CBT is thought to be particularly helpful in managing distress – teaching the individual to identify and alter disordered thought processes, building resilience, and ensuring that one remains a productive member of society in spite of the challenges they face (e.g. DfES 2018; 2020). The assumption behind CBT is that by incorporating a range of techniques into our day-to-day lives (e.g. role-playing, relaxation, journaling, exposure therapy), disordered mental states can be interrupted and reasoned with, and a person will thus change their (future) behaviour in line with this. The aim is also to resolve inconsistencies in a person’s thinking, where these can lead to cycles of negative thoughts.
There are, of course, normalising discourses that shape these conceptions of disordered thinking and behaviour, and indeed, what it means to suffer from mental health issues more generally (e.g. Brown and Carr, 2019; Brown and Dixon, 2020) To what extent do these cultural narratives misrecognise (causes of) disordered thinking? And since their focus is on cultivating dispositions that can inform a person’s future behaviour, the identified cause of mental distress is not only the presence of negative thought patterns, but an absence of dispositions that lead to more desirable behaviours, such as resilience or logical thinking.
Understanding dispositions is not a matter of ‘excavation’ i.e. discovering the ‘inert truth’ of what determines my behaviour. Rather, this very process of understanding brings to light who I am in the present, and is always open to (re)interpretation.
This seems to make sense. Conventionally, I may come to believe that because I am an anxious person, I am more prone to self-doubt in all situations. But how do I know this about myself? In his early works, Sartre (2011) argues that ‘dispositions’ are not inert personal qualities that determine a person’s behaviour. Rather, these facets of my personality only appear on the basis of how my actions have been interpreted. But rather than seeing them as located only in the moments in which they appear, I instead define myself (and others) as always and inescapably being that way, both now and in the future. Importantly, however, understanding dispositions is not a matter of ‘excavation’ i.e. discovering the ‘inert truth’ of what determines my behaviour. Rather, this very process of understanding brings to light who I am in the present, and is always open to (re)interpretation.
In any account we give of ourselves or others, there is always an element of fictionalisation. By this, I am not referring to the ways we might fabricate stories about ourselves: our self-deceptions, the explicit selectivity with which we remember events that ‘define’ us, or the means by which we (misguidedly) rationalise our behaviour. Rather, fictionalisation is inevitable in the ways in which we attempt to understand ourselves and others, as well as the narratives of our past that we continually (re)construct in order to explain ‘who we are’. Autobiographical writing serves as an example of this - assuming, of course, that autobiographies are not simply a reporting of ‘facts’ about our past, but involve an active and ongoing construction of who we are by virtue of how this past is (re)interpreted.
Fictionalisation is inevitable in the ways in which we attempt to understand ourselves and others, as well as the narratives of our past that we continually (re)construct in order to explain ‘who we are’.
Most autobiographies are written over a long period of time, and involve a level of introspection that is deeper, more complex – and indeed, more inconsistent - than those offered in CBT. For narrative researchers, one is ‘rendered meaningful’ in these self-accounts (Ricoeur, as cited in Polkinghorne, 1998). Sartre’s own autobiography, Words, first drafted between 1954-1957, was later redrafted almost ten years later (Whitmire, 2006). As such, it can be read as a palimpsest of sorts, revealing uneasy tensions in the person Sartre was across his lifetime: as a child (the object of the text), as pre-War intellectual (the first draft), and as an activist looking to rebuild European society after the horrors of war (the second draft). Throughout, Sartre (2000, p. 46) interrupts his self-narrative by reflecting on the difficulties of writing an autobiography more generally. Indeed, in offering an account of ourselves, the extent to which our outward behaviour reflects our private motivations or thoughts is tricky. This is especially complicated when judging the reasons for our behaviour retrospectively:
It is no good putting yourself in the dead man’s shoes… you cannot help assessing his behaviour in light of results which he could not foresee and of information which he did not possess, or attributing a particular solemnity to events whose effects marked him later, but which he lived through casually… It is not surprising: in a completed life, the end is taken as the truth of the beginning.
The value of this form of introspection does not lie in the extent to which one figures out the exact causes or reasons for their behaviour, however. Rather, it serves as a means by which to (re)construct the stories we tell ourselves, and the person we ‘are’ on the basis of this. Of course, some scholars have pointed to Words as a way to showcase inconsistencies between Sartre’s later and earlier thought. In CBT models of therapy, such inconsistencies are a direct target for ‘treatment’, as evidence of illogical (disordered) thinking that is in need of correcting. And yet, inconsistency seems to be an inevitable way in which one relates to themselves, given that the accounts we offer over time are attempting to capture something inherently inconsistent - the changing nature of our commitments, the wider narratives that are introduced and that cast our histories in a new light, the relationships we forge and the books we read that show us new perspectives – in short, the instability of making sense of ourselves across time.
By introducing narratives (e.g. in literature) that embrace inconsistency, might we then offer educational responses to mental health that see inconsistencies not as problems but as part of our ongoing pursuit to (re)construct ourselves?
In light of this, how might we reconceptualise ‘disordered thinking’ in education? By introducing narratives (e.g. in literature) that embrace inconsistency, might we then offer educational responses to mental health that see inconsistencies not as problems but as part of our ongoing pursuit to (re)construct ourselves?