Why is it that the idea of “mental illness” is so much scarier to many people than any other illness? We talk freely about cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, yet whisper about Bipolar Disorder, schizophrenia, and OCD. Of course the media portrayal of these illnesses doesn’t help, but surely there must be more to it than that.
While the “physical illnesses” mentioned above are seen as diseases that happen to us, the “mental illnesses” are perceived as us. We get cancer, but we are obsessive-compulsive. Cancer is separate from us. OCD is us. Indeed, many people incorrectly believe that those with “mental illnesses” typically have no insight or understanding as to what is happening to them.
Why do we think this way? I believe it’s because “mental illnesses” are illnesses of the brain. And we are our brains, right?
Well, no. We are not our brains. Our brains, like our livers, kidneys, and hearts, are organs in our body. And just like any other organ, they can sometimes function improperly, or become diseased. Indeed, because the brain is the most complex organ in the human body, there are many different things that can go wrong with it.
In this interesting article on mindfulness and neuroplasticity, there is much discussion on how the brain can be retrained and rewired. Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, a world-renowned expert in neuroplasticity and the author of Brain Lock, talks about studies he conducted on mindfulness in the mid 1980’s:
“It seemed worth investigating whether learning to observe your sensations and thoughts with the calm clarity of an external witness could strengthen the capacity to resist the insistent thoughts of OCD.”
The ultimate conclusion from his well-conducted studies? “The mind can change the brain.”
To me, this is clear evidence that our brains are not who we are. They are an organ in our bodies that to some extent at least, can be trained. If you are as annoyed as I am with all the quotation marks I use in this post surrounding “physical illness” and “mental illness,” now is as good a time as any to say I do not plan on distinguishing illnesses in this way any more. Because OCD and other so-called “mental illnesses” are illnesses of the brain, which is an organ in our body, I believe they are as much physical illnesses as are diseases of any other organ.
But if we are not our brains, then who are we? A great question with, I’m guessing, many answers. We are our hearts, our minds, our spirits, our souls. But never are we our illnesses, no matter which organ they happen to arise from.