“Mental Illness”

I have written about this “mental illness” phrase before, but when I saw the Daily Post prompt on “morphing” language, I couldn’t resist revisiting the problematic semantics of this popular concept related to human distress and/or anomaly in experience.

Cat With Shrew
Words are most useful when they accurately describe what they are referring to, when their meaning actually reflects something that is seemingly true about the world. The phrase “mental illness” is a tricky one, because at this point it is a concept that affects one in four Americans and has been accepted into our common collective rhetoric as being a real thing.
Yet, the phrase “mental illness” does not describe any sort of actual or scientific disease process. This is not to say that people don’t struggle with difficult experiences. However, the difficulties that people may have are not necessarily due to an “illness” that affects the “mental,” whatever that may be.
Recently, the National Institute of Mental Health made an announcement that the NIMH will move away from funding based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM. The NIMH, instead, is hoping to focus research on biological and neurological testing that may identify specific imbalances or attributes that may be correlated with experiences that manifest as what we consider to be “mental illnesses.”
In July of 2012, the American Psychiatric Association released a report on biomarkers which clearly states that they have found no biomarkers indicating features that may contribute to anything remotely resembling an actual disease process. There are no lesions, no protuberances, no void grey areas of neurological scarring.
Our brains are, by and large, perfectly fine. Thus, the language of “brain diseases” that is currently used by organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness is inaccurate and misleading as to what the causes of our unique human trials and tribulations may be. It is unfounded, not real.
For some, there is appeal in the concept, in the thought that our troubles can be blamed on damned heredity, some tangled tragedy in the pathways between chemical, feeling, action and memory…dream, body, heart, mind, Self, World. Yet even for those who identify with the concept of having a “mental illness,” it only takes about a moment of reasonable thought to know that our lives and experiences are more complex than the outcomes of our neural circuitry.

Of course, there are some instances that neurological duress or wounding can be implicated in human struggle. The effects of lead, for example, can wreak havoc on the functions of our brains, as can diseases like syphillis and all sorts of drugs affect the functioning of our brains and our subjective experience. People do get “brain damage” if their brains are hurt. It’d probably be safe to assume that, at this point in our industrial history, we are all a little brain damaged. Similarly, we can all – to some extent – heal or adapt.


A disease affects living things. Metal does not get diseases. It can corrode, but that is not a disease, it is a natural chemical process, with variables that can speed it up or slow it down, prevent it or even stop it. Some artisans find corrosion to be lovely and interesting, the edges of rust so delicate like lace, where metal has somehow been erased, turned into air and element.
The word “illness” implies the existence of a “healthy” state. Yet, is it healthy to not feel sad in a sad situation. Is it healthy to not be who you are? When we have stress reactions to stressful circumstances and events, is that not healthy?
What exactly is the “illness” that afflicts over a quarter of the US population?
If our brains are not ill, what is? This brings us back to our “mental” – which is itself a murky term. Operationally, it could be considered some conglomerate concept comprised of thought, emotion, and significance. Which is not that much different than what we seem to be talking about when we talk about “consciousness.”


So, what exactly is being “treated” by drugs used to treat “mental illness”? Many of these drugs actually seem to cause neurological damage, in the form of tardive dyskinesia, akathisia, and wild imbalances/dysfunction in neural networks. So, how does that work, if there is no “illness” and the “treatments” often cause harm? (Note: Some people do choose to use pharmaceuticals in their approach to dealing with their unique human condition and find medication to be helpful.)
You cannot treat a broken heart with chemicals. For a moment, you might feel better, or feel nothing at all, but your heart will still be broken. You can change the way you think and see and feel by taking any number of chemical compounds, from adderall, to cocaine to klonopin to morphine. However, you will still be who you are.
Is who we are and what has happened to us a disease? What is the prognostic trajectory of a disease like this? Can we heal? Can we change? Can we grow? Can we, even wounded, perhaps thrive?
You bet your ass we can.
I mourn a little everyday for the hundreds of thousands of young vibrant people who were lost because they thought they had a mental illness, who were told they had a mental illness and who were forced, often brutally, into lives that left them drugged, destroyed, and isolated. I mourn for their families and for the sadness of it all.
…and then I get angry, that people do not get what they need, and that they are punished for the effects and the process of what they live through.

“Mental illness” is a phrase that is changing, becoming more clear, transparent in it errors.
Fortunately, it is a phrase that is, in the minds of real scientists, this phrase will slowly but surely and thoroughly die under the weight of the multiple incommensurabilities between ethics and evidence that will ultimately shape any true science of the human condition.

This ->

American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.). Washington, DC: Author.

…is not so important anymore. It is already antiquated.

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This message has been brought to you by The Council for Post-Apocalyptic Psychiatry.

3 thoughts on ““Mental Illness”

  1. It’s moving away from the word mental illness to brain disease. I’ve written something to this effect because it’s Mental Health Week for us here in my area.

  2. Pingback: Daily Prompt: Morphing | On My Front Porch

  3. Pingback: Is is Is | The Jittery Goat

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