‘Mental health’ vs. ‘Mental illness’

I’ve written a new piece on Mind Your Mind.ca. You can see it here.

As a researcher who records people having conversations, I hear people say a lot of wacky things. But one thing that I hear, in the news, in blogs, from people’s mouths, really makes me cringe. I hate it when people say that someone has ‘mental health’ or ‘mental health problems’.

Firstly, just saying that I have ‘mental health’ is ridiculous. We all have mental health – it isn’t a negative thing to have, it’s simply a thing that everyone has, just like everyone has ‘regular’ health. Frankly, we all have mental health problems. I don’t like the way ‘mental health’ separates the mental from the physical, as if they were a divisible topic without relation (I should note that the positive use of ‘mental health’, as in “Check in with your mental health” or “Be healthy, mentally and physically” are perfectly acceptable).

But secondly, ‘mental health problems’ implies that there is a problem with the person that is impacting their otherwise normal mental health. It suggests that the person is at fault. It suggests that there is a normal, ‘healthy’ state of ‘mental’ that is being derailed by the person having ‘problems’. There are not enough ‘quote’ marks to effectively simulate my derisive tone to this terminology.

A mental ‘illness’ allows the problems to be attributed to the illness, not the person. A mental ‘illness’ implies that there is a real, factual symptom and/or syndrome at play. A mental ‘illness’ characterizes the issue as separable from the person – and it also suggests that healing is possible.

The downside of the term ‘mental illness’ is that it implies a perfectly definable, bounded set of symptoms – it does not allow for variation. It also demonizes any symptom, suggesting all symptoms are bad, and must be treated and fixed, whereas that may be against the person’s wishes.

Overall I think ‘mental illness’ is a better term for emphasizing the negative side of psychological issues, whereas ‘mental health’ should be reserved for positive frames of speech.

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