I’m looking to explore arguments either supporting or critiquing the concept of ‘mental illness’ - conceptual issues about mental health/illness, mental health care, attitudes towards mental health, and how these issues are related.
In Britain, we live in a time of prominent campaigns aimed at challenging the stigma of mental illness. Mental health stigma makes it hard for people to talk about their distress. This leads to people avoiding their problems, letting them build up and up. They don’t talk about things with their friends, struggling alone in silence, which exacerbates their distress. And the stigma makes it hard for people to talk about mental health issues with their employers, compounding their problems even further.
According to many of the anti-stigma campaigners, mental illness is just the same as physical illness. If we can only start treating it this way, people will begin to open up about their struggles. This will gradually break down the stigma, letting people support each other and helping them to get the treatment they need.
However, not everyone is on board with these ideas. Thomas Szasz rejected the idea of ‘mental illness’ entirely. The mind is not an organ - the mind is something the brain does. If a TV isn’t working properly, it makes sense to call it faulty or defective, and to try to fix it. But if the TV show you are watching is garbage, it makes no sense to describe it as a faulty TV show.
This is just one of the conceptual disagreements surrounding mental health/illness. Sometimes it strikes me as insensitive when I think about people rejecting the whole conceptual framework of mental health care and diagnosis just because of what seems to be a semantic or philosophical concern. However, I think there may be reasons to give these questions some consideration. If there is a deep and widespread stigma of mental illness, it is possible that these conceptual issues play a role in shaping the attitudes that lead to it.