One of the most challenging cases I ever managed involved sending a patient with antisocial personality disorder to the hospital emergency department involuntarily because he was actively homicidal with an intention, a plan, and a means to kill a targeted peer in the homeless shelter. I could barely identify any other mental abnormality in his clinical presentation. In making the decision to authorize his involuntary transport to the hospital, I used past knowledge, weighed various options and probable outcomes, and reflected on how to promote the safety of all involved.
Within a couple of hours later, I was challenged by the hospital emergency medical doctor there, who told me that antisocial personality disorder was not enough of a mental illness to warrant any treatment. This doctor then discharged him to the homeless shelter. Personality disorders are considered minor mental disorders, deemed not serious by official regulatory and authoritative standards. So was I expected to send him off to the homeless shelter to kill this peer?
Toward the end of February of this year, I wrote a blog here about the importance of language when referring to recipients of psychiatric treatment services. I argued that using terms besides "patients" when referring to them gives “psychiatry a pseudo-scientific appearance and undermines positive progress.” I went on with “For decades, psychiatry has had a reputation in the medical community as being less than medical, or even unworthy of respect in some instances. Psychiatry and its strides, albeit slower to come by than other medical disciplines, does not deserve a pseudo-scientific reputation.”
Then I came across a publication by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), whereby they educate the public about mental illness in a section titled “Mental Health Conditions.” As I saw the many instances in which they use the word “condition,” I thought about how mental illness should not be referred to as a “condition.” Many advocates for the seriously mentally ill population oppose NAMI’s use of the word “condition” because it softens the illness. I agree that the term “illness” appears stronger than “condition,” and thus more indicative of pathology than “condition.” Describing mental illness as a “disease” is even better.
According to a dictionary, “A medical problem or illness can be referred to as a condition.” Did NAMI get it right? Or, did this dictionary get it wrong?
More relevant definitions:
Mental = pertaining to the mind.
Mind = capacity to feel, think, perceive, and reason.
The literal definition of “psychology” and “psychiatry” is the study of the soul, rooted in the Greek word for “soul,” that is, “psi-chi.”
Soul = feelings, thoughts, behaviors that are typically considered as separate from the physical body. Some religions view this as immortal.
Psychiatry and neurology separated because mental disorders could not be attributed to any physical evidence. Hence neurology took over the study of pathology that was tangible, while psychiatry studied abnormalities that could not be seen. Despite the fact that the ability to feel, think, perceive and reason originates in the brain, many dictionaries still define “mental” as unseen material.
Indeed using the term “mental illness” softens and minimizes the seriousness of brain abnormality. With a bit of guilt, I will consistently use the terms “mental illness” and “mental health” throughout my book. I apologize for this. The reason for sticking to these terms is simple. These terms are so deeply ingrained into the fabric of my professional work and its surrounding field, that not using these terms would draw less of an audience.
Technology has advanced to the point where schizophrenia, commonly known as a “mental illness,” is physically evident in magnetic scans of the brain. Even features of antisocial personality disorder, such as lack of empathy, are physically evident in the brain. I believe that psychiatry and neurology should merge and become one entire discipline. This would lessen or completely alleviate stigma toward "mental" illness.
This is a great blog, I completely agree with you.
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