"It's all in your head."
"It's just your thinking that's the problem."
Anyone who has suffered from mental illness has likely heard some variation of these phrases, coming from strangers to even the closest of friends and family. These phrases hurt deeply, because it is a sentiment that relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of mental illness (and indeed, the nature of the mind itself).
More than merely mental
Yes, mental illnesses are primarily defined as extreme distress or disorder in the functions of emotions, reasoning, or behavior rather than a physical defect on an organ one can see.
However, what this sentiment fundamentally fails to understand, is that the sheer disruptions caused by mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or ADHD cannot be controlled by sheer force of will alone.
It would be considered cruel in today’s society to demand a wheelchair-bound person to walk, as if their current means of movement were merely a stylistic affectation, rather than a necessary support for a very real disability.
Yet, people in our society don’t think twice about doing exactly the same thing to our mentally-ill neighbours. People suffering from depression and trauma are told to “get over it” and “cheer up”, as if these pithy words will magically break the cycle of self-destructive thoughts in the sufferer’s mind.
Illness is a fine line
In fact, I’d make the case that the line between mental and physical illness is not as clear cut as many people would seem to believe.
For example, significant amounts of stress are a major pre-condition to strokes and heart attacks. In addition, studies have shown (with the help of brain scans of mental illness patients), that the brains of those who have mental illness are actually physically different when compared to the brains of mentally-healthy people.
Scans of people’s brains afflicted with bipolar disorder, addiction, OCD or anxiety had a notable lack of brain matter in some sections of the brain (specifically, those related to impulse control) compared to healthy adult brains.
Likewise, researchers have found evidence that conditions such as anorexia and schizophrenia could be partly caused by improper or mistimed signals sent by the brain.
Brain = Mind
In a way, this makes sense. After all, the brain is the seat of our mind and consciousness. The connections between our neurons are the physical forms of our memories and learned skills. Reasoning and emotion also happen primarily within our brains.
Describing emotions as coming from the heart or disembodied spirit is an artefact of an era that had a limited understanding of biology.
However, many people and cultures find it hard to think this way, to truly feel it in their bones. It’s still the cultural norm to think of the mind and emotions as completely non-physical entities, utterly disconnected from our bodies.
While this, in itself, isn’t so much of a problem, the real problem comes when people presume a level of godlike control over the mind that we don’t even have with our own bodies (just try spending an entire day without going to a restroom!).
Mental illness is physical
Universal conditions like fatigue and illness show us that the body is not 100% under our control. There are limits to our body that, once carelessly surpassed, will cause the body to break down.
It’s time that we all expand that understanding to the mind as well since the mind is definitely not separate from the body.
The mind is a part of the body, and so mental illnesses are also physical illnesses, and should be (in my opinion) taken as seriously as any virus or grievous injury.
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