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Understanding mental illness

At one point in time, he would have been regarded as hellspawn./ Sander van der Wel
At one point in time, he would have been regarded as hellspawn./ Sander van der Wel

That which looks weird is not a mental illness symptom.

Author: Audrey Le Pioufle

Mental illness, as a topic, is something that people seem to avoid nowadays, and with good reason; we all know that being different from others is not largely accepted in society. If one dared to live or to behave in socially unusual ways, one would be ostracized. This expectation contributes heavily to the problem of mental illness and especially to the condition of people labeled ‘mentally ill’. In order to end the stigma and discrimination of mental illness, we need first to understand how different societies define it and how its definition has evolved across history.

The concept of mental illness is constantly evolving. For instance, people considered homosexuality as a mental illness 40 years ago. What the history of mental illness has taught us is that it is a concept built by societies. As members of society, I believe it is important to learn how to distinguish what is severe mental illnesses and what is simply a social label applied on to non-conformists. Certain mental disorders are made up by marketers to sell products and make profits; others have real biological causes. An increasing number of health professionals consider mental illness to stem from both biological dysfunctions and environmental stressors. This helps us to develop innovative ideas on how to treat and perhaps prevent it. As the history of mental illness understanding shows, it took us a while to get there.

Before being treated as a medical issue, early societies defined mental illness in religious terms up until the 16th century. The ancient Palestinians based their understanding of mental illness on religious beliefs and treated patients by one’s social status. It was only from about 500 B.C. that some sort of medical model of mental illness appeared. It was based on the equilibrium between four human bodily fluids (blood, yellow bile, black bile, phlegm), and was the first model that considered mental illness as being separate from religion. The treatments derived from it, however, proved fatal. In spite of the model’s principles, the vast majority of the population continued to believe that mental illness could be explained in religious, specifically Christian, terms. The Middle Ages saw the emergence of witch-hunts as an extension of this mentality. While a second model emerged in the 16th Century, this didn’t mark a turning point for the treatment of mental illness. Instead of treating the ‘mentally ill’, generally considered to be the poor and disadvantaged, societies built madhouses to keep them in.

Our modern medical system, with trained physicians, psychiatrists, and psychologists, came into existence in the 19th century. Today, these specialists have the power to treat illnesses by respecting medical ethical standards. Our current medical system is more humane and delicate that the previous ones, but there is still room for improvement.

By covering the history of mental illness, I wanted to illustrate the fact that the concept of mental illness is not a rigid one. It has evolved since the beginning of civilizations and will still continue to do so. Now, when we are faced with a mental illness problem, we must ask ourselves if there exists a social cause for labeling a condition as mental illness. Must it be something physically and mentally impairing? Must it be seen in our genes? I agree that taking pills may help a person function in society, but I also believe that labeling a person as mentally ill damages them and their acquaintances; carrying this label is like carrying a weight. I realize that I cannot do much to solve the problem, but if I can bring some people to believe that we need to redefine mental illness, I think it would help many people.

The phone company, Bell, has recently made the most brilliant commercial of all times on “language matters”; it’s part of their “Let’s Talk” program on mental illness issues. I invite you to take a moment to reflect on the message and consequences of such behaviors on people who struggle with mental illness. Never forget that by stigmatizing a group of people or a particular behavior, we will never solve problems; rather, we will reinforce them.

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