The term “mental health” is inherently misleading. And since it’s Bell Let’s Talk day, you’ve probably heard it a zillion times already. Although I fully support raising awareness on this topic, it’s important to unpack the keyword we use to steer attention to this matter. I do believe within it lays some fundamental fallacies we all must be aware of.
The term “mental” has a certain connotation in our culture. It basically means “in your head.” When we say something is “all mental,” it roughly translates to “you just have to want it bad enough.” So when you consider somebody with poor “mental health,” you might be tempted to equate them to somebody with poor discipline, resolve or general awareness of themselves.
The reality is, people suffering under this umbrella of disorders must exercise these higher cognitive skills to an even greater degree, as well as uphold a greater state of mindfulness as they go through day-to-day life. They must be aware of the changing climates of their mood, triggers that may spark an episode and environments that lend themselves to undue suffering. The stakes are high, so attention must be paid.
But beyond the basic connotation, and frankly more importantly, the term “mental health” also perpetuates a false dichotomy. It’s not like there’s physical health on one hand and mental health on the other. Mental health is nothing more than brain health. And brain health is physical health–or, to be generally accurate, health.
Packaging our cognitive and emotional well-being as “mental health” creates unnecessary confusion. It suggests there may be a component of control–that a person may will themselves out of their illness as if there’s some sort of choice involved. And maybe you believe there is a choice involved. But in here lies a basic–yet crucial–misunderstanding.
It’s like this: We all have a brain. And our brain’s state of functioning provides us with our first-person experience of the world–moment to moment. Some things are conscious, like lifting your cup of coffee, or deciding which Netflix show to watch. Other things are unconscious, like digesting food or recognizing somebody’s face. But whether an action is conscious or unconscious, it is still absolutely, undeniably, the product of a physical brain at work. Our awareness of our mind happens after the fact, as a matter of physiology. Choice never enters the equation.
Sure, it really does feel like we have the gift of choice. The experience of free-will is a powerful one, and it’s a concept that underpins our social, political and criminal institutions. But the reality is, your “choice” to grab your coffee was determined by the neurons in your head moments before you were aware of making a decision.
By extrapolating this fact, one can understand why someone with illness in their brain cannot “think better thoughts,” or “pull themselves out of it.” Chances are they have tried all that and more and remain prisoner to dysfunction. They simply cannot account for why, upon previous attempts, they were able to will themselves to salvation, but currently, their efforts work in vain.
Neuropathology and free will are incompatible concepts. And in order to address the former, the latter must go. It sounds ironic, but viewing each other as unraveling biology over time is actually the only way to feel true compassion for one another. We understand that everything happens in a context of factors we cannot control. We realize we are the subjects of our environment–inside and out. We see sickness as sickness, not as choice.
So next time you hear the term “mental health,” remember, no part of it is really mental. Our experience of free will cannot undermine the temporal march of physics and the mechanisms of biology. We have a script and an ever changing environment and an awareness of the interplay. If yours leaves you feeling happy and fulfilled, be grateful. For too many, such a state of being is too seldom realized–regardless of their efforts.