Twelve Monkeys is an excellent film as a whole and for analyzing the question, “what is insanity?” Is it really just opinions which go against the majority or can we determine a theory of mental health that has nothing to do with what’s “normal” or “average?”
First off we have to separate descriptive from normative accounts of psychology. Many when they talk about mental health assume we ought to be healthy as opposed to insane or diagnosiable with chronic depression, Generalized Anxiety Disorder or the like. Moral Skeptics are less convinced of this proposition but I won’t go far into this because what I’ve written in the past regarding ought claims can easily be transferred to mental health and an accurate perception of reality.
But what of descriptive accounts? Regardless of whether or not we ought to be healthy a purely descriptive account of our health seems fairly straightforward. It’s been shown a million and one times that vitamin C has a certain effect on the body. Certain foods that contain different chemicals, molecules and proteins have certain effects on the body. A healthy body is one that is functioning according to loose descriptors including but not limited to a certain degree of agility, lack of pain (unless something external is causing it), healthy immune system and so on. So can the same be said of mental health? The same way we can say, “lack of pain unless a paino is laying on top of you” can we also say, “emotionally stable and cognitively agile unless your mother has recently died?” We like to think there is nothing “wrong” or indicative of illness in expressing unwanted emotions in certain contexts – that which outside of said contexts and persisting for long periods of time express need for diagnosis.
There is also the question of attachment to “reality.” It’s become a trite remark that if you talk to God you’re religious, if God talks to you you’re something else. And indeed most of the human race holds views that the most well educated and studious in applying reason would call false, if not “crazy.” It seems that most people have some intuition about this distinction. Distinguishing the social mores and opinions of the majority with psychosis. Most Christians claim a belief in Satan for example, but even devout Christians will get, I suspect, a feeling of being in the presence of the mentally disturbed if a man they’re having light conversation with begins discussing Satan controlling all the major industries of the world. There is, it seems, a distinction between professed belief and actual belief as well as passive belief and active, passionate belief.
In my view, much of mental health has to do with the human ability to reason. Many people have false belief either through no incentive to challenge or question the views of the majority, so they continue in ignorance although if they applied their faculties to any hypothetical issue or area of philosophy their answer would seem reasonable at least at first glance. Though it likely would be erroneous from assuming Realism or any other thing which seems sensible to many but is not founded when one gives a penetrating glance removing all the unquestioned assumptions of the human existence (involving mostly metaphysics and morality).
There are more traits that one could give, but in conclusion, it seems a loose descriptive account of mental health is possible just as a physical account of a knee, heart, or body is. We can ask questions like, “how long is it healthy to grieve after the passing of a loved one?” but we can also ask the question “how long is it healthy to feel pain after one has been stabbed in the shoulder?” Pain is part of the body’s natural mechanism to tell the organism something is wrong and have it act accordingly. There is debatably either an evolutionary reason behind anxiety and depression or these things are just the after-effect of the evolutionary incentives behind heightened creativity the same way there is no evolutionary incentive behind an enlarged cranium being shoved out of the birth canal resulting in higher death rates for both child and mother, but this simply being a consequence of having the larger brain necessary for Man being on top of the food chain the way that our species is.
Much like we can give a purely descriptive account of “virtue,” or “justice,” I believe we can do the same with mental illness with minor complications – the complications having to do with fleshing out the picture, not whether or not we can have a purely descriptive picture once we remove all normativity.