Is Mental Illness really “Mental”? – 1

It’s taken me a good few years to realise but I really have a big problem with the term “mental” illness!

I’m sure that part of my difficulty with the term arises from being trained in body psychotherapy. Because of that training I’m hugely aware of the complex interactions within us all between biological processes, emotional states, thoughts, perceptions, relationships past and present, our imagined future and our spiritual selves. All taking place within the context of family and of societal culture. None of this can exist in isolation – we are creatures forged from the constant interplay between all these aspects – and in a state of continual flux.

So I think that to speak of “mental” illness as if it exists independently of all these other factors is misleading, to say the least.

We know that physical illness occurs within a context of stress and major physical illness is far more likely following stressful life events; this is well known and researched. In my view it must also follow that illness is more likely overall in people that are least able to cope with stress.

Recent studies have shown that poor physical health is far more common in those individuals that have suffered abuse or neglect in childhood. So problems with physical and mental health are not independent but overlap and form a complex and interdependent whole, together with the long-term consequences of our upbringing and whether we were subject to love and support or abuse and neglect (or most likely, some combination of these).

Overall then, mental health problems tend to show when we are trying to navigate difficult life events that we cannot find the resources to deal with. Then we fall into depression or anxiety. We may also be subject to long-term problems related to past trauma (and PTSD).

If we can lead a relatively peaceful life without major stress we may be able to cope, though. Sadly, low stress lives are hard to create, relationships are hard work and modern life seems to be becoming more stressful and is likely to continue being so.

Perhaps many “Mental Health” problems have more to do with how we live our lives, organise our work, create our social lives and the expectations we have of ourselves than they do to some analogy with a medical disease model of physical health.

There’s also a whole other reason why I object to the term, but I’d better save that for another post….


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