A disease is a ‘pathological condition of a part, organ, or system of an organism .. characterized by an identifiable group of signs or symptoms’. Sounds simple, right? But what about mental health? Do mental health conditions qualify as disease?
Tipper Gore is one of those who argues yes. ‘One of the most widely believed and most damaging myths is that mental illness is not a physical disease. Nothing could be further from the truth’.
Others however, disagree. They posit a distinction between the brain – a biological system of chemical transmitters, and the mind – which deals with desires, morality, motivation and social conduct.
Can we make distinctions between mental and physical illness? A person who suffers a stroke or brain injury can suffer emotional changes or memory loss. Yet both would be classified as physical rather than mental disorders. In the same way, depression is seen as a mental health problem. But sufferers experience a a devastating range of physical symptoms, from exhaustion to insomnia.
Just this week, it’s been reported that scientists trying to identify the cause of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME), have been subjected to threats and abuse. But their attackers are the people they claim to be helping – those with the condition. Why? Because their research is aimed at showing that CFS is psychological rather than biological. Which makes a big difference to how it is treated and perceived.
Whatever the outcome, these reactions show the significance of labels. On the page, a diagnosis is just a word. But to those suffering, it can feel like the difference between hope and despair.