Updated: Feb 3, 2022
And a label is a dangerous thing
If one of your arteries became blocked, you wouldn’t say you were dealing with a “circulatory illness.” You’d say you had heart disease and needed surgery. If you broke a bone in your foot, you wouldn’t say you were living with an “ambulatory disorder.” You’d say you needed a cast.
But what label would you use if your brain chemistry became unbalanced?
“Words are hard to find. They're only cheques I've left unassigned from the banks of chaos in my mind." -- The Police
With the brain, we speak of “mental illness.” Well, unless we find a tumor. Then we call it brain cancer. That’s scary. Or, if we find a clot. Then we call it a stroke. That’s scary, too. But if no tests show signs of something wrong, we’ll just use the old mental illness moniker.
We don’t even have a good backup for it. If you look up mental illness at thesaurus.com, these are the suggested alternatives: insanity, mental disorder, personality disorder, and schizophrenia. Don’t like those? You could go with some of the others offered: craziness, derangement, madness, or lunacy. How do those sound?
It’s mental illness or nothing. And that’s a problem. Because when you’re sick, you start looking for labels to explain how you feel. It helps you feel less alone and, many times, a diagnosis can bring you hope. That’s the power of a name.
“There's a name for it. Names make all the difference in the world.” -- Talking Heads
But when you suffer from a mental illness, it’s all guesswork. And guesswork doesn’t inspire hope. Sure, there are associated signs that help to define specific illnesses, like bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia. But many times, these definitions are collections of symptoms, and they are used as approximations. So, you receive your label, and that starts to define you.
Never mind that our tests are inadequate. We still don’t have good approaches to measuring specific brain chemicals at play. We make assumptions, try different medicines, and hope for the best. But we assume, if our current procedures can’t show a specific cause, that the problem must be in a patient’s “mental” state, whatever that means. That’s what patients start to think, too.
It’s even worse though, because our chosen words have trained people in society to believe that mental illnesses are not tied to biological processes. They think that someone suffering from depression should be able to “snap out of it” or that someone with OCD should “just relax.” At the extreme, some folks believe that psychosis springs from possession by demons or other spirits. It’s unacceptable.
“We all been playing those mind games forever.” -- John Lennon
Recently, I’ve been learning about the work being done by One Mind. It’s one of the leading nonprofits engaged in funding cutting-edge research into the causes of various illnesses. The folks at One Mind often exchange the word “brain” for “mental,” so they talk about brain health and brain illness. I quite like this approach.
If I told you I suffered from a brain illness, you’d quickly recognize that it was biological in nature. You wouldn’t think that I was somehow conjuring the symptoms in my mind. And that’s exactly what’s going on with these illnesses; I discussed this in my last post. Many are the result of biology and chemistry, even if our tests can’t yet illuminate them.
Shari Staglin, One Mind’s Co-Founder and a Director, explains her organization’s rationale for taking this approach:
“We use the term "brain health" because there is no discrimination or stigma about the brain. There is no shame or blame."