Mental Illness


We are familiar with the terms mental illness and mental health.  In NZ we have a Mental Health Foundation and the government uses the term to reference psychological disorders.

By referring to psychological disorders as mental illnesses, we focus on the mental or cognitive side of the problem and ignore any bodily manifestations of disorder such as poor posture or constricted facial expression.

Definition of mental illness

Mental illness is a commonly used term to describe all kinds of psychological disorders.  The term 'mental illness' is alleged to have first appeared in the English language in the novel Wuthering Heights.  It has been used in both clinical and informal uses since.  Institutions for the mentally ill were commonly called mental asylums during the nineteenth century and well into the 20th.

Benefits of this definition

Before Psychology became a respected discipline, the term 'mental illness' served a useful purpose.  It enabled people to be assessed and treated according to the resources available in the nineteenth and 20th centuries.   Sufferers of mental illness are now integrated into the community rather than isolated in institutions and a lot of public awareness exists. 

However now that we enter the 21st century inadequacies in usage of the term now exist.

The main event

Mental illness is a misnomer.  Using the term 'mental illness' to describe people with psychological disorders infers that the problem is entirely mental or cognitive and that any deficits in the body or use of the body do not play a part.  If it is true that we can alter our emotional fitness through bodywork as we are proposing, then that makes the term 'mental illness' quite inaccurate.  Continuing to use the term may continue to encourage therapies that focus on cognitive behaviour, to the exclusion of bodywork and other behaviours.  To put it another way, as we move to incorporate bodywork, body grip and facial motility into the therapeutic dictionary, then we need to find a term that better encompasses both mind and body.  That term has been found in Psychology textbooks for decades: Psychological Disorder.  Similarly in preference to 'mental health', we should use 'psychological health'.

The discipline of Psychology covers the whole gamut of human experience, including cognition, perception, behaviour.  When referring to psychological disorder we can easily picture the body playing a part in the disorder because we know that psychology covers so many things. When referring to mental illness, we are given a narrow frame of reference from which to draw conclusions about causality and cure.  This frame is entirely focused on the mind and its activities.

The term 'mental illness' is archaic and should no longer be used in common professional discourse about psychological disorders.

However, there may be some areas in which the term 'mental illness' still has currency.  The only ailments with identifiable pathology in the brain are neurological disorders such as dementia and chronic forms of some of the psychological disorders such as schizophrenia, where the brain tissue clearly shows deterioration.  A clinician can show evidence of these ailments using MRI or CT scan.  This cannot be done for ailments such as depression or anxiety. The reason is that dementia is accompanied by real brain tissue damage and the disorder is pretty much isolated to the brain and does not depend on any other bodily dysfunctions for its presence, as with depression or anxiety.  The label 'mental illness' suits them well.

Personal example

Challenge to audience

We should drop the use of the term except chronic illnesses.


References and further reading