Mental Health Vs Mental Illness – Is the Pendulum Swinging?

By Marvin Ross

Since we began writing this blog, both Dr Dawson and I have railed against the use of the term mental health and mental health issues as a euphemism for illness. Hopefully, others are beginning to realize the foolishness of that term to describe illness. To paraphrase the Bard, An illness by any other name is still an illness.

A recent essay in the New York Times by Huw Green, a clinical psychologist specializing in neuropsychology, is also critical of the use of the term mental health which he states is used to describe both wellness and distress. While its use is supposed to be stigma busting, “it manages a double exclusion. It fails to actually name any mental health problems — those about which we ought to be raising awareness — and it also makes a claim that is sadly untrue; there are many people who, at least some of the time, do not have mental health.”

He then goes on to say what we have always said that by trying to avoid stigma, this term generates more stigma. He says “The change in language was supposed to address stigma. But it has simply moved our attention away from the very people who face the most stigma — those with diagnoses of schizophrenia, for example, or symptoms that do not allow ready participation in the mental health curriculum.”

What he describes is exactly what we see in government and health policy directions for the mentally ill. The emphasis is on the less problematic problems that people have to the exclusion of the very serious and disabling conditions. During the recent election campaign in Ontario, most politicians talked about the need for more psychotherapy to help us overcome the stress of covid, school lockdowns, transitory anxiety and other similar problems. No one talked about the homeless many of whom are people with untreated serious mental illnesses or the lack of psychiatric hospital beds.

It’s all like focusing your cancer care on those with basal cell carcinoma with a 5 year survival rate of 100% and ignoring pancreatic cancer which has a 5 year survival rate of 11%. No one dies of basal cell carcinoma in 5 years while 89% of pancreatic cancer victims die.

The suppression of a word, the avoidance of the use of a word like cancer, leprosy, syphilis, mental illness, or schizophrenia, increases stigma, mystery, and fear. It also does not make the reality of serious illness go away. Terry Fox did not run half way across Canada to create awareness and raise money for “bone health issues.”


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