I think that at least some of the stigma surrounding mental illness comes from viewing it as distinctly different from physical illness; what goes on in the mind is seen to be separate from what goes on in the body. In this case, illnesses like cancer and diabetes are strictly physical and illnesses like anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder are strictly mental.
This kind of thinking may lead to stigma in two ways. First, if mental illness is viewed as something which is all in the mind, people see it as less tangible and view it as somehow less real than physical illness. Of course, anyone who has suffered from mental illness has experienced just how real and painful these conditions can be.
Second, the view that mental illness is distinctly different from physical illness may lead to the view that mental illness is within a person’s control. If it is ‘all in the mind’, the idea is that we can change how we are thinking and feeling; unlike physical illness, we have a choice whether or not to succumb to mental illness. Of course if we have a choice, this is like saying that it is our fault for being ill: choice leads to blame.
I think that there is something wrong with this way of viewing mental illness as distinctly different to physical illness. All human activity is psycho-physical. The body and the mind are interwoven and linked; they affect each other. In which case, there is no sharp divide between mental and physical illness.
It is clear that our mental health is affected by our physical health. For example, when we are in pain from a physical injury or illness, our mood, energy levels and feelings of anxiety are all affected. Alternatively, if we do something pleasurable with our bodies like exercise (pleasurable for some, though not for me!) or have sex, our mood is lifted and we experience feelings of well-being.
Physical illnesses such as cancer and diabetes may affect our moods and therefore impinge upon our mental health. What about mental illnesses? Many of those who suffer with mental illness will realise that mental health conditions affect the body in many ways. I have had experience with general anxiety disorder, panic disorder and bipolar disorder. Like many others, my experience of these conditions is both mental and physical.
This is most obvious when I have a panic attack. My whole body goes on high alert, I have a huge adrenalin rush and I feel all the bodily symptoms of this surge in tension: my breathing becomes shallow, my chest becomes tight, I feel nauseous, I feel faint, I shake, I get hot and start to sweat and I feel weak at the knees. A panic attack is a thoroughly physical experience.
Like anxiety, depression is also experienced both physically and mentally. When I am ill, my whole body feels exhausted, drained and heavy. Sometimes my vision goes strange and everything looks dulled. My appetite changes and I get digestive problems too. My body longs for sleep and I have the urge to hibernate. Opposite to depression is mania. When I am manic my body speeds up. I feel shaky, energetic and full of beans. My body is alert and ready to go.
I think it should be clear that mental illness, like any other illness, is experienced both mentally and physically. Therefore there is no sharp divide between mental illness and physical illness. Like I said before, all human activity is psycho-physical. Acknowledging this may go some way in removing the idea that we have a choice about whether or not we succumb to mental illness.
An illness is something that goes wrong with the body, which includes the brain of course. Both mental and physical illness should be considered to be on a par with each other. They both affect the body and mind and lead to great pain. We have no more choice over whether we suffer with mental illness than we do with physical illness. There are always things we can do to try and cope with and manage illness, like exercise, diet and therapy. However, we can’t just snap our fingers and make ourselves well again.
Of course all this should have been obvious from the start. Who would choose to have a mental illness? Why would someone decide that they will continue on suffering? Surely if it was as simple as pulling oneself together or getting a grip, then the millions of people suffering around the world would be cured by now. No one would choose to experience the painful mental and physical symptoms of these illnesses rather than trying whatever they can to get well again.