Sunday, August 12, 2018
Why Is “Mental Health” A Stupid Phrase?
The phrase, mental health, is stupid. It accurately describes neither mental nor health well, and here are a few key reasons the phrase fails miserably:
First, it maintains the mind-body split haunting humanity since the dawn of civilization. French philosopher Rene Descartes made matters worse in the 17th century when he clearly distinguished between body and mind, thinking the latter included a transcendent soul.
Like many others, I think of the mind and body as one continuous entity—although it’s terribly difficult to not fall into the duality of considering them separate. For example, if you hold your hand in front of you, you’ll see “your hand.” But it’s not your hand at all; it’s a part of the greater whole that is you.
As another example, consider what’s happening as you read this page. Your brain squirts neurotransmitters between cells, neural circuitry gets activated, and your central nervous system integrates information from your eyes with your memories. Your capacity to understand these words exemplifies the intermixing of bodily and mental phenomena into one.
Despite the sparking and squirting occurring in your brain, you read blissfully unaware of these neurobiological events. You cannot feel them. You cannot control them (unless you crack yourself in the head with a rock, smoke meth, or drink a lot of alcohol).
Baruch Spinoza, the 16th century philosopher kicked out of Judaism first and Christianity second, coined the phrase, aspect dualism to resolve the mind-body split. He meant that your subjective experience as you read this right now is but one aspect of or, as Nietzsche would have said, one perspective on what’s happening. In other words, the brain-gone-electric runs on one level and you experience your reading on another.
(Jewish and Christian leaders hated Spinoza because he argued against the soul being separate from the body; Spinoza considered God the same as nature—not a groovy thought in his era, resulting in his general and loneliness-inducing ex-communication).
By its very nature, the phrase mental health separates mind from body.
Second, mental health encompasses so much more than the mind, rendering the word, mental, misleading. You cannot be reading this right now if you never learned English. If you did, then you also learned megabytes of cultural information, like knowing what I mean by writing about brains, philosophers, Judaism, Christianity, and or the 17th century. Our cultural knowledge influences much of how we live our lives.
Why wear clothes?
Why not run amok in the street shouting obscenities?
Because you live in a social contract, whether you signed up for it or not. You’ve been programmed. You know the rules without knowing you do. You follow them like all good boys and girls.
It’s rather trippy, and worthy of many more posts, to consider how all human knowledge passes through the filters of our beings as humans.
Consider any subject area, biology, say, or astronomy. Microscopes and telescopes have allowed us to gain immense amounts of information about worlds small and large. We name them and classify them. But can we really know them?
They are all translated into the realm of our own subjective experiences, irreducible to whatever serves as actual reality, whatever that is.
All this to emphasize, then, that the word mental, as it appears in the phrase mental health, suggests a more constricted world than is actually the case. It is, in fact, an infinitely complex world involving mental, physical, cultural, sociological, historical and other factors.
Third, the phrase, mental health, refers to many features whose normalcy cannot be established. Consider something common to your experience, like your bladder. It fills with liquid waste products, you urinate them out, and then your kidneys fill it with more. A number of qualities of bladders can be empirically established. They’d better not leak, for example, nor should they be too thick, thin, rigid or flaccid.
But your mental life? How do you empirically evaluate that? Unlike bladders, our minds necessarily involve our lives, and our lives involve endless complexities irreducible to measurement.
Should you be married or not?
Should your sex life feature twice-weekly or twice-yearly encounters?
Are you supposed to have one friend or 25?
What about questions of homosexuality or bisexuality or transgenderism?
I trust you get the point.
The norms of so-called mental health involve incredibly complex cultural and social factors, all interacting with one another in a dynamic, ever-evolving web. Norms risk objectifying human beings.
Arguably the only relatively measurable norms concern neurobiology. It’s not a good idea, for example, to have a schizophrenic brain, or one that imposes wild mood swings, as in bipolar disorder. The serious anxiety and depressive disorders are no pieces of cake either. If serious enough, these will affect how you live your life.
Even assuming you have “normal” neurobiology, who are mental health professionals to advise you on the normalcy of your polyamorous lifestyle, your drinking habits, how well you manage money, or what you do for fun?
For these reasons and more, I strive to avoid using the phrase mental health whenever I can. I use prefer phrases like effective living, or words like maturity, fulfillment, or, extending Sigmund Freud’s two descriptors of mental health into three, the degree to which you thrive in the realms of love, work, and play.
They sound more human; they also evade the troubling mind-body split.
(If you like this blog, please tell your friends, family, and pets to subscribe by opening up alankarbelnig.com, clicking on any blog, scrolling to the bottom right, and signing up. Like any selfless writer, I always seek more readers. Thanks so much! – Alan)
Alan Karbelnig, PhD, ABPP