Letters

Is it time to abandon the term mental illness?

BMJ 2001; 323 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.323.7311.511/a (Published 01 September 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;323:511

Mental illness is descriptive term

  1. Roger A Fisken, consultant physician (RFisken@nahs-tr.northy.nhs.uk)
  1. Friarage Hospital, Northallerton DL6 1JG
  2. 2/10 Anzac Parade, Newcastle, NSW 2300, Australia
  3. 4739 Limberlost Lane, Manlius, NY 13104, USA
  4. North Devon District Hospital, Barnstaple, Devon EX31 4JB

    EDITOR—Some years ago the disciples of Thomas Szasz, R D Laing, and others in the antipsychiatry movement were telling us that we should free ourselves of belief in “the myth of mental illness.” Now we have Baker and Menken telling us that the term mental illness must be abandoned, not because it is a sociopolitical construct, as Szasz et al would have us believe, but because it is an erroneous label for brain disorders.1

    Surely the term is neither of these things: it is simply a descriptive term that recognises that the primary disturbance in someone who is mentally ill will be in high level brain functions, such as cognition, volition, orientation, comprehension, reasoning, and affect. It is thus distinct from the functional disturbances in conditions such as Parkinson's disease or epilepsy, where the primary disturbance is at a more mechanical level. One could draw an analogy in terms of a comparison between osteoarthritis and a fractured neck of femur: both can affect the legs but do so in different ways and for different reasons.

    Of course major mental illness is likely to be due to brain disease and of course it is wrong to stigmatise those who have mental illness, but in acknowledging this one should not bow to the latest form of political correctness. Mental illness is a useful descriptive term, and I can see no logical reason why it should not be as useful in the future as it has been in the past.

    References

    1. 1.

    Terminology should focus less on mind and more on matter

    1. Michael Jameson (m.jameson@hunterlink.net.au)
    1. Friarage Hospital, Northallerton DL6 1JG
    2. 2/10 Anzac Parade, Newcastle, NSW 2300, Australia
    3. 4739 Limberlost Lane, Manlius, NY 13104, USA
    4. North Devon District Hospital, Barnstaple, Devon EX31 4JB

      EDITOR—I have dissociative difficulties and thus have a personal interest in the term mental illness. I think that Fisken's rapid response commenting on …

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