Am back from my little holiday with a blog tour! I know! Blogging never sleeps (though I am writing this while feeling quite jet lag so once I've written and amended this, I shall!) and this title might tickle your fancy, hence why I wanted to be involved in the tour!
Pyscho-Logical is an Audible Original that sees Dr Dean Burnett, neuroscientist and best-selling author, look at mental health and ask the question "why?". Why are some conditions such as depression and anxiety so common? Why do so many mental health problems have physical symptoms? Why, when mental health is so common, do people need to be made aware of it? And why is there still so much stigma and confusion when it comes to mental health?
I am thrilled that Dean is writing a small guest post for the blog tour and I am able to host it! Mental health is important and as someone who thinks he doesn't always have the right balance when it comes to my mental and emotional health (as you can probably guess, I have a tendency to panic), I think we all need to learn to be better on ourselves and look after ourselves and be more aware of the world around us.
So, before I hand you over to Dean, I just want to thank Dean for finding time to write this post and to Anna at Midas who thought this would be right up my street. If you want to know more about Dean, you can pop over to his website - deanburnett.com - or say hi to him on Twitter at @garwboy. If you want to know more about Pyscho-Logical, go to Audible.co.uk and have a listen to the samplers. That should explain this better than I did up above.
Now, over to you, Dean!
MENTAL HEALTH, BUT NOT MENTAL 'ILLNESS'?
My new audiobook, Pscyho-Logical, is essentially a summary of all the knowledge and experience about mental health that I’ve accumulated in nearly 20 years of working in neuroscience, psychology, and psychiatry. It was, and is, my intention to spread not just ‘awareness’ of mental health matters, as most high-profile campaigns ae dedicated to doing, but to enhance understanding, of the hows and whys of the mind, the brain, and how these can, and regularly do, go awry for so many people.
It may come as a surprise, then, that in this audiobook all about mental health, that the first mention of the term ‘mental illness’ only occurs around 40 minutes in, and pops up maybe only a couple more times at most throughout the rest of the book. This may strike some as baffling, given that’s ostensibly what the whole book should be about. Isn’t that like a maths textbook not featuring any numbers?
It’s not like that, though. This wasn’t a massive oversight on my part, but a deliberate choice. At first, it may seem like a confusing one. How many of the aforementioned campaigns have put so much time and money and effort into getting people to accept that mental illness is ‘a thing’? And now I, a supposed expert, am refusing to even use the term? It’s like as if the Apollo astronauts finally reached the moon, took one look at it, and said “Looks a bit dull, let’s just go home”.
But my reasoning goes beyond just trying to be annoying for the sake of it. It’s actually based in the fact that mental health problems are so often described as being the equivalent of physical health problems, and this is, unfortunately, often an unhelpful approach, due to the more variable and slippery nature of mental health matters.
Comparing mental health problems to physical ones is an easy go-to approach when it comes to convincing people they exist at all, because we all have experienced or witnessed some form of physical ailment. It’s a familiar context that we can get our heads around. It’s understandable that the comparison persists. But it’s not a 100% accurate one, particularly when it comes to actually dealing with mental health problems.
We tend to think of physical illness in terms of injury or disease, treatment, cure, and so on. A problem exists with the body, it is identified, a specific treatment or other intervention is applied, the problem resolves, the body improves, the person gets better. Job done.
This is rarely how mental health problems work, though. Treatment of such issues is typically a matter of management, adjustment, coping, adapting, and so on. Because most people think of the physical expressions of illness when they hear the term, applying it to mental health problems evokes a lot of assumptions and expectations that invariably just mean more stress and work for the person dealing with the mental health problem. Questions like “How do you fix it?” or “Why aren’t you better yet?” or “Another bout of depression? I thought you’d dealt with that”, and so on.
Put simply, describing mental health problems as ‘illnesses’ like any other can have some advantages, but it can also cause a lot more problems.
There’s also the fact that illness conveys a value judgement. An illness is a negative thing, something that’s not meant to be happenings. We can easily make this assessment with our bodies and physiologies; we know how a body is meant to look and operate, we know that if it starts leaking green slime or the limbs fall off, that’s a bad thing and should be addressed asap.
We can’t really do this with the mind, though. It’s far more variable than the body, and alters wildly from moment to moment for perfectly normal reasons. This would make it hard enough to deal with even if we could see it. Which we can’t; it’s completely intangible.
This presents problems, because it means we base our parameters on what’s ‘normal’ for a mind on more social or cultural benchmarks. And these fluctuate far more than it ideal. For instance, only a few decades ago, homosexuality was deemed and official mental illness. Now, same-sex marriage is increasingly common. Homosexuality never changed, it was our understanding and society’s perception of it.
But this still means that countless homosexual people beforehand were deemed ‘ill’, and were ‘treated’ to help remove this ‘affliction’. If you read anything about gay conversion therapies, you’ll know they do far more harm than anything, and yet they were accepted treatment for a very long time.
What I’m getting at is, when you say someone’s ill, you’re saying they’re unwell and need to be treated, or ‘fixed’. It’s usually OK to do this with physical ailments, but it’s a lot harder to be sure about mental ones. Applying the term illness to them invokes a lot of certainty and negativity that may not be warranted, and that can only make things worse overall.
This is just one of the many, many aspects of the modern understanding of mental health that make it very tricky to write about. Anyone who even makes the attempt to do so should be congratulated for that alone.
Is this just me trying to manage expectations for my new book? Well, you’ll have to download it and find out…