What exactly is mental illness, anyway?

Well, at its most basic level, mental illness is just thatillness that is mental!
That may sound painfully obvious, I know, but it’s worth taking a second look at, because that over-simplistic description captures two very important things:

  • One, that what we’re talking about is has to do with the mind.
  • Two, that it is a sickness.

I’ll start with the second.

ticker checker by waynemah, on FlickrCreative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic LicenseImage by waynemah

A mental illness really is an illness

A sickness. A health condition.

Honestly, if I was able to say only one thing about mental illness, it would be this: it really is a health condition. (Disorder is a better word, but some might find that a bit neutral, so let’s stay with illness. More on that in a later post.) People who get diagnosed with mental illness have real health conditions, just as much as anyone with, say, malaria fever or asthma or sickle-cell disease or diabetes. (Tweet that!)

But do you really see it that way? Do you really think of it as a condition the same way you think of those other conditions? If you say you do, do you, when it comes down to it, prove that by your actual actions?

A mental illness is mental

Yes, I know, you’ve probably heard that word used abusively before (like, “that guy is mental”). Which is another thing, by the way: words describing mental disorders are often used in a derogatory sense. We don’t tend to do that with physical disorders. (Like, whoever would say, “You’re so diabetic right now!” Exactly.)

Mental illness is not just mental, though. Research has shown conclusively that mental illness isn’t just a “thing of the mind.” There are actual physical changes. (Again, more on that later.) Suffice to say for now that mental really just means having to do with the mind. And that just as bodies have health conditions, so do minds.

In the next few posts, I’ll dig more into this, and into what the concept of mental illness (or disorder) is about and other stuff having to do with that, but for now, I want to say it again: when we talk about any kind of mental illness, we’re talking about a real health condition. (Tweet that.)

This is the first in a series of posts that will explore what exactly mental illness is—and isn’t.

What do you think – what would change if we really viewed mental illness as we do other health conditions? Speak your own mind in the comments below. (And don’t forget, you get new posts in your inbox – just sign up in box at the top of the right column.)

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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  1. Interesting page. We still need a lot education when it comes to mental illness. Please don’t forget the cultural and superstitious aspect of our society. This happens to be a major challenge in your drive to changing people’s mind set.

  2. Exactly. Once when I was waiting to buy akara in a rural area, I saw a young man with new-onset psychosis. I asked for him to be sent to a nearby teaching hospital where I worked. All the people buying akara with me started laughing. They told me his case wasn’t meant for hospitals, but the dibia.
    Mentally ill persons are left to wander the streets and fend for themselves, and not many people see the inhumanity in that. We have a lot of issues to address as a society.

    1. That’s so true, Obiora. In a sense, though, can one really blame the people who were laughing? I mean, did they know any better? There’s inhumanity afoot, but there’s a lot of plain old ignorance, too.

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