I think much of my distaste for the term “mental illness” is the connotation that there is a problem with our minds. It’s because of the word “mental,” which implies “not physical.”  Do you believe there is a problem with the minds of people who have epilepsy?  Brain tumors?  MS?  I rather doubt it.  Those disorders are pretty well recognized as brain disorders – in other words, physical.

What has commonly been known as mental illness is in fact a set of brain disorders also. There is a problem with our brains.  This set of brain disorders may affect perception, behavior and cognition.  Clearly then, they must be “mental illnesses.”  This may be news to some, but epilepsy, brain tumors and MS can affect perception, behavior and cognition.1  People  who have epilepsy often experience an “aura” prior to a seizure, which may include visual or auditory experiences, i.e., perception.  People with brain tumors often experience behavioral changes, and cognitive changes prior to treatment are common as well. Changes in cognition, including memory, planning, and judgment, are common in people who have MS, with some studies estimating an incidence of 70%, even for those with early MS. 2 Yet the public rarely refers to people with these disorders as “mentally ill.”  Because these disorders are understood to be physical.  Do you see where I’m going with this?

Everyone (now)3 recognizes that the disorders listed above are brain based, and as conditions with a biological basis, not a matter of weak will or a character flaw.  My point of course is that those brain disorders (fka mental illness) which also affect perception, behavior, and cognition are equally biologically based. But the language used to describe them suggests that they are not.  That’s what sets my teeth on edge.  There isn’t anything wrong with my mind, for crying out loud.  But my brain is broken.  So can you please not refer to me as “mentally ill?”  I’d be most appreciative, and probably a hell of a lot more pleasant.


 1 Really. There’s a fair amount of documentation for this assertion in the literature of various disciplines. Since this is not a scholarly article, I won’t be providing citations.  You can use teh Google yourself, and you will undoubtedly find some examples that way.

2 To those who find use of the Oxford comma gratuitous, affected, or otherwise objectionable, I apologize.  Well, not really.  But I’ll note your objection and then proceed to ignore it.  Fair enough?

3 That hasn’t always been the case. Epilepsy carried tremendous stigma for centuries and MS was once known as “the faker’s disease” because patients were symptomatic except when they were not.