Reading René Decartes tonight, I am pondering philosophy of mind and the mind-body dualism. The theory that today, in a sense, forms the basis of the stigma surrounding mental illness, in its origins certainly did not have this intention. But sometimes the past makes the present clearer, and looking far back into time opens our eyes to the future better than the present moment ever could.
In its roots, the split between the body and the mind had as its aim a better understanding of human nature. In effect, labeling the body as the physical source of drives and instincts, and the mind as the source of reason and logic led to a hope that the mind and the will that supposedly resides in it would ultimately take control over the bodily impulses and urges, and steer the body into purposeful action with its functions of striving, choosing and resisting. This idea, this search for an active will was a hopeful one. But in the context of mental illness, this hope was lost, and what we are left with instead is the separation of mind and body representing an impetus for the stigma of mental illness that we are facing today.
If our body is hurt, we elicit empathy and encouragement to seek medical help and get better. People flock around us, ready to lend a helping hand. Always asked “Are you alright?”, frequently reminded that someone is there for us should we need anything, we feel motivated to see a doctor, to get a diagnosis, to get medication and try different treatment options to see which one fits our needs best. We talk about it. We get empathy. We seek professional help.
Talk, empathy, help. I cannot stress these three words enough. Because these three simple words embody the reaction each human being gets for going through anything from a broken arm, to a high fever, to a food poisoning, to cancer. We all get this reaction that says “no judgement”, that screams “acceptance and support”. We get it as if it were a basic human right – which it is.
But what happens when instead of our body, the source of our suffering is our mind? What happens when we struggle with depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation? When this is the case, no matter how real our suffering is, our bodies are intact and no one sees it. And if they don’t see it, then to them it must not be real. Except, it is real. To the person suffering from the symptoms of any mental illness, the suffering is as real as a broken arm or a collapsed lung. And yet, because to the others’ eyes it is invisible, it goes by unnoticed, unaddressed. So the three simple words dissipate into thin air. Where is this basic human right now? Instead of talk, empathy and help, one gets silence accompanied by worried looks. Worried looks and sealed lips. There is no understanding, and where there is no understanding, there can be no encouragement to action. So the person is quietly pushed into the corner by silence. Sitting in a lonely corner, wishing they instead had a visible illness.
The philosophical mind-body dualism was a beam of hope. It was not paving the way to the stigma we are facing today, but rather the way to a better understanding of the two – how they influence each other, how they interact and integrate. After decades of research, we should know better than to separate body and mind. Calling the illnesses of the mind mental inherently separates them from the physical. But anyone who has experienced depression and anxiety knows how many of the symptoms of these illnesses are in fact physically experienced. The shivering body, the sweaty palms, the elevated heartbeat, the nausea, the headaches, the numb feet — these symptoms are as physical as any physical illness can boast, yet depression and anxiety are labeled mental, and with this label comes the stigma, and the loss of the basic human right of acceptance and empathy that everyone dealing with any physical illness has.
So where do we go from here? The obvious answer is that we defeat this stigma, but this is a task that proves to be an insurmountable feat. We need to start by thinking and truly understanding how the mental and the physical are intertwined worlds that constantly interact. Descartes aim in his philosophical wanderings was by studying the mind to find the source of will which he thought would explain all behavior, all of human nature. Learning more about the mental states would help us uncover more about the physical states. So although this was the mind – body dualism, the hope was that knowing about one will lead to more knowledge about the other and about the ways they integrate to make a human being whole. This is where we need to start in breaking the stigma. Mental and physical health, and mental and physical illness are not that different after all, and not separated in any way. We need to embrace this equality of the two, and to extend the same respect and empathy to people suffering from mental illness as we do to people suffering from a physical illness. And by looking into the past, we can begin to understand the path that lies ahead. Because, sometimes, the farther we look into the past, the more clearly we can see the solution for the future.
Written for IMAlive
by: Diana (lighthousebeams.wordpress.com)