I came across this great article recently, entitled A Phrase To Renounce for 2014: ‘The Mentally Ill.’ The first part of the piece discusses the phrase “the mentally ill” and the stigma that comes along with it.
Dr. Paul Summergrad, psychiatrist-in-chief at Tufts Medical Center and chair of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, has a problem with the definite article “the.” He says:
“Imagine if I said that [using the word ‘the’] about any other group. It suggests that people who suffer with these conditions are somehow other than us, and can be put in a discrete and often stigmatized category. It creates a sense of otherness that is not the reality, statistically, of these illnesses.”
The author of the article, Carey Goldberg, gets the point, and realizes what an enormous effect one three letter word can have. She writes:
“I try a thought experiment, the headline “Equal coverage for the women.” Weird. “New era for the gays.” Offensive. “Crime and the blacks.”
It really is amazing the difference a word can make, isn’t it?
But what really piqued my interest is the second half of the article, where Dr. Summergrad discusses what a mental disorder really is. Basically, we are talking about issues with any type of mental functioning: thought, speech, emotion, behavior. As Dr. Summergrad says, this includes, “everything from Autism Spectrum Disorders to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, through Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, anxiety disorders, post-partum depression, recurrent depressive illness, dementing illnesses which have profound effects not only on memory but on behavior. Parkinson’s disease has high rates of very severe anxiety and depression.”
Personally, I have always felt there should be little to no distinction between mental and physical illness. Isn’t the brain as much a “physical” organ as our other organs? If we are ill we are ill, and our sicknesses rarely affect just one area of our bodies.
Dr. Gene Beresin, executive director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, also contributed to the article, emphasizing the blur between “mental illness” and “medical illness,” as well as the stigma still associated with disorders of the mind. He says:
For example, high blood pressure is a combination of genetics (biology), stress, obesity, cigarette smoking and numerous other factors. So why don’t we get upset when we hear ‘he has hypertension?’ The same argument should be made for so-called ‘mental illnesses.’ Post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, may be a result of a genetic vulnerability to anxiety, being trapped in a war zone, or being a survivor of a hurricane.
Virtually all illnesses have biological, environmental and psychological components. We could say the same for migraines, ulcers, asthma or diabetes. But it does not make one feel uneasy if we say, “He has asthma.’ On the other hand, ‘He has depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder feels so very different. Is that because it is labeled ‘mental?’ Certainly. ‘Mental’ is an arbitrary negative label that segregates something psychic, personal or ‘in the head’ from the body and the environment. It also is very scary.
And why is it so scary?
“This is because of the myth that it is not treatable,” Dr. Beresin says. “And that is certainly false. We have as good results as treating hypertension overall (considering medications, diet, exercise and stress reduction measures.) And the biggest horror is ‘losing one’s mind.’ This, I think, is a fate worse than anything short of death. Once we separate mind, body and environment and believe the myth of losing one’s mind, the myth of ‘mental illness has its perpetual fuel.’
I think this is a powerful article that brings up a lot of great points. The bottom line is the stigma surrounding brain disorders is alive and well, partly because of all the misconceptions that remain. Sigh. We still have so much work to do!