October 2020: What is “Mental Health”?

It is so interesting to me how our entire society has adopted the phrase “mental health” without really examining what it means.   I’ve written about this previously and will probably revisit it periodically.

Thomas Szasz, a famous American-Hungarian psychiatrist who died in 2012, pointed out that the term makes no sense.  He was a medical doctor, and he noted that if you did an autopsy, you would not find a “mind”.   So what is it that is “unwell” or in poor “health”?   As Dr. Szasz said, the mind is a metaphor, not an actual organ.

Of course, the brain is a real organ you would find in an autopsy, and there is a branch of medical science that focuses on real disorders/pathology of the brain and central nervous system.  That is neurology.  That’s not “mental health”.

My question is why have we, as a society, chosen to look at behaviour, emotion and adjustment in a medical model?   In my opinion, it promotes a social construct that what is different is inherently pathological.  So if someone in a group stands up and starts quacking like a duck, we don’t say “how cool is it that they are expressing themselves”.  We say “what is wrong with them”.  Maybe different is not wrong, and maybe that is a social idea and has nothing to do with anything clinical, medical or scientific.  We could choose the look at differences in behaviour and emotion as beautiful parts of the tapestry of the human experience, instead of mysterious “symptoms” of having “poor mental health”.

If someone feels distressed about anything, they may want to address it.   If I want to increase my arm strength I can go to the gym, and if I want to understand myself better, or feel less sad, anxious, distrustful, etc., I can see a therapist or engage in other forms of self-help.   But maybe we don’t have to conceptualize these things as “sickness”, and maybe we need to take a hard look at the validity of the term “mental health”.