Mental illnesses like depression and anxiety are diseases. Physical illnesses like cancer and polio are diseases. But should we look at them the same way? Probably not.
To de-stigmatize mental illness, we need to understand that mental illnesses are more than just physical diseases of the body.
Diseases of the mind aren’t simple. They affect the way we think, behave, feel and judge others and ourselves. They’re mysterious and are often caused by non-physical factors such as social injustice and personal experiences.
The stigma of mental illness can be used for unjust purposes. Science writer Carrie Arnold explains, “defiance is often pathologised, with psychiatrists sometimes leading the charge.” Arnold cites historical examples of “diagnosing” defiant oppressed groups as mentally ill, like treating homosexuality as a mental illness. They are efforts to dehumanize and silence that only contribute to stigma.
To fight this, we’ve turned to neuropsychiatric research on the body. The more progress we make, the more we view mental illness as a physical disease, that mental diseases are grounded in the brain. We tell people with mental illnesses it’s “part of their body,” that they got an unfortunate hand of genetic cards.
Seeing mental illness as only a physical phenomenon makes things confusing. Are you still responsible for what you do? Do you behave and think “normally”? These thoughts only increase stigma.
Similarly, when we say oppressed groups are mental ill because it’s “part of their bodies,” we say they face injustice because “they are the way they are.” It shifts blame away from society’s injustice and toward their own bodies, dehumanizing them as victims of their own crimes rather than humans capable of expression and worthy of equal rights.
Joseph E. Davis, professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, said the brain-disease model turned our stresses into medical issues and increased pharmacy-backed initiatives to sell more drugs. He said, “If that wasn’t troubling enough, the campaign has also had the unintended consequence of promoting the very stigma and discrediting attributes it sought to reduce,” in the Hedgehog Review.
Davis said we traded our personal responsibility to obtain biological determinism, the idea that our physical bodies decide who we are. We said people with mental illnesses don’t have personal control or rational choice over their actions, behaviors or ideas, but most mental illnesses aren’t that serious. We strip them of responsibility, casting them off as “less human.”
It’s easy to make moral judgments that don’t do complete justice to the reality of mental sickness. People with mental illnesses still have the same responsibility and selfhood everyone else does.
Instead of saying “It’s not shameful to seek help,” we should acknowledge the reality of mental illness and our own responsibility over ourselves and our actions. And, instead of saying, “It’s just part of your body,” we should say they are the same human beings, but see the world differently. They have the same ideas of personhood that others do.
Should we completely abandon our scientific research in understanding mental illness? Probably not. The science of our bodies can tell us many things about mental disease, but we need to understand the roles of other areas, such as culture, philosophy and society, might play in mental illness.
No matter what we realize, mental diseases are more complex than we thought. When trying to de-stigmatize mental illness, we should remember we’re more than just genes and molecules.