It is no great revelation that the words we use to describe things have a lot to do with what those things become in our mind. Language shapes experience and defines the parameters of our understanding. Most people, even those with only minimal education in critical thought, can come to understand this very simple human truth. However, many people assume the meanings of our words to be fixed and accurate – especially if those words are issued by perceived authorities, such as popular culture and government, or any entity that may have an ample marketing budget.
The danger of this tendency to accept erroneous words as being apt is well-captured by the term “mental illness.”
This term was introduced in the age-old tradition of establishing formal pathologies for things which fall outside of the statistical norm or which appear to function in a way that is deemed useless or undesirable. There is little difference between early 20th century thinking about mental illness and the modern constructs of biopsychiatry. While the technologies of medical “study” and “intervention” may have become a bit more “sophisticated.” The basic premise is the same: human struggle is due to a flaw in the individual human structure.
By defining people who experience the world differently or who struggle within their experience “mentally ill,” medicine assumed the right to meddle with people’s brains, to tamper with the meaning and outcome of people’s lives. In many ways, in the context of the mechanized age of exploitation and production, raw humanity itself has been pathologized.
Mental illness doesn’t even exist in the way that it is purported to exist. This is not to say that people do not have difficult times, and this is not to say that some people experience the world in ways that can be very challenging and, at times, odd for them. This is not to say, even, that some people’s brains work differently than others. In fact, no two people experience the world in the same way.
However, the construct of “mental illness” tells us that some of these differences are more concerning than others. By and large, the dangers of mental illness are closely related to being treated as if one is mentally ill, from the self-destroying social and emotional abuses, to the hopelessness of believing that one has an intrinsic flaw in one’s brain that will never allow them to stray too far from being sick and caught in struggle. Further, the “treatment” of “mental illness” itself is damaging, as evidenced by the many deaths and disabilities caused by psychiatric treatment.
The idea of mental illness creates and sustains stigma, by informing us that people who struggle with their humanity in ways outside of the acceptable range of normality are inherently flawed, inherently sick, and that, worse, that “people with a mental illness” do not even know what is going on. The mere idea of anogsonosia broad-handedly invalidates any efforts made by a person to define their own experience. If family members are informed that their loved one may not realize that they are mentally ill, the “person with a mental illness” is viewed as one who has little grasp on reality and any assertion otherwise is met with doubt and dismissal.
The effect of this is that those who are deemed to be mentally ill are stripped of the human right of self-determination. Their experiences are made to be symptoms of nothing more than a dysfunction of chemical landscape, an imbalance that must be “treated.”
Some individuals make use of the term “mental illness” because they feel that it adequately describes the difficulty of their experience.
What are the costs and benefits of investing in a pathologized view of self?
We now know that even people who have been diagnosed with “severe, persistent mental illnesses” can and do recover. We know, also, that many people live in the world in ways that are outside the boundaries of normative function but which suit them just fine.
There is more and more evidence that trauma and abuse contribute mightily to people’s experiences of distress. However, the use of the term “mental illness” informs us that human difficulty is due to a brain disease and that those who have brain diseases must have these diseases “treated,” even if that treatment must be forced and even if it seems to do more harm than good.
People are beginning to realize that the “progressive” nature of many mental illnesses, the tendency for people to get worse rather than better, is very likely due to the damage caused by pharmaceutical therapies and profound psychosocial abuses. The voices of the people harmed by medical model interventions are largely disregarded by the biopsychiatric industry, as are the voices of the people who’ve recovered from difficulties that they were once told they could not recover from, that the best they could hope for was to “stabilize” and to “manage.”
Use of the term mental illness to describe human struggle is misleading in ways that distort people’s view of self and potential. Mental illness itself is a flawed construct, based on the assumption of dysfunctions that don’t actually exist in the way we are told that they do.
Is it mentally ill to believe in the strange magic of the world? To feel it deeply and to try to figure it out? To question what is assumed to be real and experiment with other ways of seeing things, to trust ways of knowing that have nothing to do with television or mass media, popular consensus? Is it ill to talk about these things?
Is it ill to become overwhelmed by these processes? Is it ill to feel confusion, to feel pain, to not be able to fake it? Is it ill to cry? To weep? Is it ill to go through terribly difficult times, in which ones mind and heart are muddled and staticky, despairing or alight, on fire?
What exactly makes us sick? A disease or the idea of a disease?
Does the treatment make us ill and if it helps us, are we really being helped…or are we being quieted?
What, precisely, is the illness?