Debunking the “Mental” in Mental Health

Today I would like to talk about the stigma around mental health and why, if there aren’t more vocal people like me regarding these things, people will continue to be ignorant and perpetuate toxic attitudes and opinions towards people with mental illness.

I’ll start with what I believe breaks the stigma around mental illness with a very simple explanation of what mental illness is. So what is mental illness? It’s a medical condition. It’s as simple as that. It’s a medical condition. Like a broken bone, or a tumor, or a heart condition, or an infection. Talking about schizophrenia is no different than talking about an ear infection. A very complex ear infection!

One of the most avoided subjects around mental health is suicide. I openly talk about suicidal thoughts, because in my opinion, it’s no different than talking about how your wrist hurts when you move it a certain way after you’ve sprained it. It’s a symptom of the overlying condition. As soon as I mentioned suicide you probably got uncomfortable. There’s really nothing to be uncomfortable about. It’s certainly a tragic part of mental illness, just as death resulting from cancer is tragic. But just like death from cancer, if a schizophrenic person kills themselves, it’s death from schizophrenia. I’m not sure if pathologists rule suicides in schizophrenic people as “suicide” or as “suicide resulting from schizophrenia”. I’m assuming it’s the latter because that’s the simple truth of it.

Think of it this way. Say there’s this zombie virus that spreads amongst people with a certain genetic makeup. Let’s say this virus drives the person crazy and eventually makes them do dangerous things like walk into traffic, jump off bridges, and bash their heads into walls. That’s essentially how mental illness behaves; it drives you crazy and makes you do things that are not conducive to self-preservation. The virus analogy may not be far off, as I’ve read articles that indicate many mental illnesses are actually viruses “attached” to our DNA, which is why it was assumed that certain mental illnesses were a genetic disorder.

Now I’d like to talk about the two words “mental” and “health” put together. I personally hope for a day where we no longer prefix health issues with the brain with the word “mental”. Specifying brain disorders as a “mental” health issue almost seems like it gives the impression that the person has a level of mental control over what is happening to them, which is simply not the case. For example, a schizophrenic person with suicidal thoughts but doesn’t kill themselves, compared to a schizophrenic person with suicidal thoughts that have killed themselves isn’t any stronger willed than the one who commits suicide. They simply have been provided circumstances or differing in the severity of their symptoms which resulted in a state that didn’t lead to suicide. As such, if we really must use a prefix to define health issues such as schizophrenia, bipolar, anxiety, PTSD, etc., I think the word “brain” should be used. I personally think a lot of mental health stigma could be broken by simply calling it “brain health”. Maybe that isn’t the proper terminology, so maybe someone in the medical profession could come up with something better.

I suppose if there’s anything I want you to walk away from with this post, is that even if you’re talking to someone with mental illness who may be embarrassed to talk about it themselves, just imagine yourself talking about a heart condition. Have empathy, but it is by no means something to be embarrassed about.

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Photo credit: Callie Gibson

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