We make a distinction between physical and mental illnesses, and too often that means making a distinction between illnesses that are ‘real’ and those that ‘are all ‘in someone’s head.’
Obviously this way of looking at the distinction doesn’t make sense but does the distinction itself? I’d argue that in a very meaningful sense mental illnesses are physical conditions.
In fact, distinguishing the mental and the physical in any context is dubious. What we call thoughts represent physical changes in the brain and humans only experience the physical world through our thought processes.
Even if we get past this philosophical problem there are still problems applying the divide to mental illnesses. Let’s take depression as an example. As the video below makes clear, while there is little consensus about what causes it, there does seem to be a physical component, be it a chemical imbalance in the brain or changes to its structure.
What is more it actually has physical symptoms. NHS choices lists the following examples:
- moving or speaking more slowly than usual
- change in appetite or weight (usually decreased, but sometimes increased)
- unexplained aches and pains
- lack of energy or lack of interest in sex (loss of libido)
- changes to your menstrual cycle
- disturbed sleep (for example, finding it hard to fall asleep at night or waking up very early in the morning)
As a final kicker there are physical conditions that have the same symptoms – both mental and physical – as depression. For example, it is quite normal for Doctors to administer a blood test to someone they suspect might have depression in order to rule out the possibility that they have anemia.
Which all begs the question, why there is an additional stigma around mental illnesses when they are ultimately not that different from other conditions.