Understanding the thoughts of a mentally ill person

Years ago, Mary and I attended a concert at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. The audience was limited to 80 people who stood in a circle around an eclectic group of musicians (baritone soloist, flute, cello, percussion, clarinet, piano, violin, cello). They performed Eight Songs for a Mad King—a monodrama by composer Peter Maxwell Davies. The composition is based on the final years of King George III.

George III was King of Great Britain and Ireland from 1760 until his death in 1820. Throughout his reign, he had frequent episodes of mental illness. In his final decade, he became violently insane. He was diagnosed with chronic mania and dementia. He was blind and possibly deaf. The medical “treatments” he received would be considered torture today.

The music is based on conversations he allegedly had with his parrot during his years of insanity. It’s hard to listen to. The music is dissonant and unpredictable, the soloist wails and shrieks. The sounds often mimic those made by humans under extreme physical and mental duress.

At the reception following the performance, I visited with a woman who had also been in the audience. She asked me, “What did you think of the performance?” I said I didn’t enjoy it. Musically, it didn’t have form or beauty. It was chaotic, the sounds were disturbing, and the baritone soloist screamed, squealed, and howled. I wouldn’t even call it music. 

She paused for a moment, then said, “Sir, do you realize that the composition reflected the troubled thoughts of someone who is severely mentally ill? The sounds you heard are likely a good representation of the thoughts that George III had.”

Her statement gave me pause. I had totally misunderstood the purpose of the composition. 

I learned a significant lesson that day: I must learn to “think as other people may be thinking.” I must seek to understand how their mind works and then give margin and not judge.  

In the years since I first heard Eight Songs for a Mad King, it has served as a reminder that I must be empathetic and patient with people who suffer from mental illness. What thoughts does someone with schizophrenia have? How does major bipolar disorder or even minor depressive disorder affect one’s thinking? 

Here’s a YouTube video of a performance of the piece. Please listen to the entire composition. It will be hard to do. Most of you will stop after a few minutes. But remember that it represents a mind that struggles. 

On a regular basis, you and I come in contact with people who have similar struggles. We must seek to understand and respond with kindness.


10 Replies to “Understanding the thoughts of a mentally ill person”

  1. I particularly appreciate your post today, Don. As you may recall, my brother lives with me and is severely bipolar. He struggles at some level everyday. With medication he manages fairly well but some days are a challenge – for him and for me (as I struggle with knowing the best way to process his behavior and determine the best way to respond). Patience and understanding are essential. Your post today reminds me that his thought processes are very different from mine. Thank you.

    1. Thanks, Rhonda. I remember how kind and caring you are toward your brother. That is so honorable. God is pleased with your love toward him. We miss you at SCC. I hope your retirement is all that you had hoped it to be. Don

  2. well that was perfectly and suitably disturbing. It did recall many conversations with my dad and mother in law as they spent their last days in the full throes of dementia. What a comically cruel series of verbal and non verbal exchanges we had, some brought back to vivid clarity by this performance. Thanks, Don, I think.

    1. Thanks, Allan, for responding. It is a disturbing video that taught me a lot. And not just about those who are severely impaired but even those (of us) who have “quirks” in our thinking and behavior. I hope you are well. Thanks for our friendship.

  3. This is so timely ! Our worldviews are so limited especially if we can’t dialogue and even try to hear what others are hearing and thinking. I visit a lot of persons in assisted living and others being cared for at home by caregivers and family who have a whole new perspective on reality. Some mystery of faith holds their world together as the world around them seems to be falling apart. Glad some artist try’s to help us hear and see as they hear and see.

    1. Thanks, Mark, for taking the time to respond. It’s an important and mysterious topic: how to love those who are a bit “off.” Don

  4. It is only when you walk alongside a friend whose husband suffers mental health issues that you realise that they are living in that chaotic world month in month out, year in and year out. Nothing makes sense.
    The partnership I have in my marriage isn’t possible for my friend. It would be wonderful to think that sufferers recover from their illness but, for some, this is a life long condition that improves then deteriorates again.

    1. Angela, thanks for insightful words. You’re right, some mental illness lasts a lifetime and those who are committed to those sufferers must make it a lifetime commitment. Don

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