We’ve all heard it. The call to end the stigma surrounding mental illness has resonated far and wide, along with the increasingly familiar adage that “mental illness is just like any other illness. “
Analogies likening depression to diabetes have become commonplace, as have assertions that mental illness is a brain disease, no different from diseases of the heart, lungs or kidney.
The intentions behind these kind of messages are most certainly noble, aiming to get individuals struggling with mental health problems the care, help and support they both deserve and need. But insisting that mental illness is no different from any other illness may in fact be a misguided over simplification with unforeseen negative consequences. Put simply, this is because mental illness is not just like any other illness.
They change the very way in which an individual perceives, experiences and thinks about themselves, others and the world. That is not to say that other diseases do not launch their own attacks on a person’s identity – receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis, for example, most certainly would. But with mental illness, the disruption in perception, thought, emotion and action, is the core of the disorder.
Whereas a person suffering from a kidney ailment can normally distinguish themselves from the disease, this is not so easily achieved for individuals struggling with mental health issues. Anyone who has returned from the brink of suicidal depression, recovered from a psychotic episode, or emerged from the depths of an eating disorder, can tell you that these sorts of afflictions hijack your being, and leave you questioning whether there is any difference between you and the disease. People with diabetes do not usually become their diabetes. But for individuals with mental illness, the disorder often starts to feel paramount to who they are.
Attempts to paint the picture of mental illness as no different from any other illness, may also have repercussions for the quality of treatment people with mental health issues receive. Overemphasis on the similarity of mental illness to all other illnesses, can result in dependence on medical models of treatment, primarily an over-reliance on the use of medication. This leads to other equally important therapeutic tools being ignored, such as therapy and other psychosocial interventions.
Again, this is not to say that psychosocially-oriented interventions are not important in the treatment of other illnesses. But in the case of mental illness, neglecting these kind of treatment approaches would be especially detrimental. And so, a major danger of the repeated message that mental illness is no different from any other illness, is that effective modes of treatment (such as those delivered by psychologists and social workers) which currently lie outside of the mainstream medical model of intervention, may fail to receive adequate funding.
Implicit in the statement that mental illness is just like any other illness, is the idea that mental illness has a biological basis, just like other illnesses. However, several well-conducted studies have shown that people who endorse these biological explanations for mental illness have less positive attitudes towards people with mental illness. They are less optimistic and hopeful about the ability to recover from mental illness as well as less accepting. They also perceive people with mental illness to be more dangerous and unpredictable, and are less likely to want to live next door to, make friends with or marry someone with a mental illness.
The take home message is that it may not be helpful to continue to emphasize the similarities between mental illness and other illnesses. Mental illness is not necessarily the same as any other illness, nor should it need to be in order for people to receive care, help and support. Let us recognize that the experience of mental illness is different from that of other illnesses, but that those affected are suffering, and we have a duty as both individuals and as a society to come to their aid.