Humanity has dealt with the concept of “insanity” and “mental illness” in a myriad of ways. The first hospital dedicated to treating the mysterious variations of “not normal” behavior, was founded in Bagdad, in the year 705. I say mysterious, because these afflictions have been attributed to everything from an evil Jeanie to the penitence one must endure for some great sin. Terms like idiot and lunatic were used to describe those who were born with or, later, developed an abnormal cognitive or emotional behaviors. With the rise of populations, the concern became more about what to do with these persons, so as to “protect civilized society”. We’ve all heard the horror stories of mass institutionalization, which included crude experimentation that was often carried out by the not-so-well-meaning. Mental illness meant you were hopeless and disposable, just decades ago.
I am calling for a change in the verbiage, from mental illness to brain disorders. It seems that these past few decades have, through amazing technologies, proven that “mental illness” is rooted, quite organically, in our brains. No longer can we say a depressed person is just lazy, or the person with Bi-Polar disorder is possessed by demons. We can see on functional MRI’s and other new scans, that their brains are disordered. Science has made great improvements in the lives of those afflicted by brain disorders. The really good news is that we’ve not only been able to measure and define disorders of the brain that cause the full gamut of “mental illness” diagnosis. we’ve been able to prove that the brain can change back into balance, in many instances; many functions can improve, such as emotional regulation with non-invasive techniques. Yet, the stigma remains enormous. People are told, still, to just pull up their bootstraps, “let it go”, “get over it”. People who need to take a mental health day are not likely to call it that, when calling in sick. We talk about all illnesses in terms of the organs they effect. The brain should be no different. Perhaps changing the term we use will retrain the collective brain of humanity, removing the stigma that comes from an ancient ideas that blame the person, not their brain.
By talking about the brain disorders that effect human behavior and emotions, the conversation is led away from the judgments that have held on tight for thousands of years. No more lumping a large group of society into a box that is far too reminiscent of the middle ages. The science of the brain has turned much of what we thought we knew on it’s head. It was a long held and scientifically accepted belief that the nervous system could not heal. We now know differently. The scientific community has not done the best job in getting out the word that they were wrong. Talking about brain health in the same way we talk about heart health could become commonplace. Children could grow up learning about brain health, and what to do when something seems amiss. Seeking help, without the judgments that were once attached, would be as “normal” as seeking help for high blood pressure. So, next time you find yourself on the topic, try on a new terminology. Bring brain disorders out of the dark ages and into the light of hope.