Mental Illness?

One of my favorite professors in graduate school used to say that naming is one of the most important human behaviors. It has taken me years – decades – to start to understand what he meant.

I started thinking about him again this morning when I came across an NPR piece arguing that we need to stop talking about “the mentally ill.” Interestingly, the most troubling part of that term is the word…the.

I remember when I used to have deaf students in my writing classes, and I discovered that talking about the deaf is offensive. It was a new idea to me. Here’s the reason: The is a tricky word because it implies more homogeneity than you’re actually going to find in a diverse group of people. (The same prohibition applies to the obese, the gays, the blacks… you get the idea.)

And there are other problems with the term “mentally ill.” One is that it’s based on a false notion – that illnesses can be tidily divided into “mental” and “physical.” Another is that there’s a connotation of severity. If you’re mentally ill, you’re psychotic – out of touch with everyday reality. The truth is quite different: Many people with mental illness are high-functioning members of society.

So what term should we use instead? One of the NPR commentators suggested “psychiatric.”


Psychiatric implies diagnosis and a course of treatment – putting yourself into the hands of a person who’s completed a rigorous educational program to learn how to cure you.

Based on my own experience and what I’ve seen in other people, some – maybe a lot – of what we categorize as “mental illness” is actually unlived life. Or ¬†values and priorities that have outlived their usefulness and need to be replaced with new ones.

I’ve just finished reading a marvelous book – William Glasser’s Take Charge of Your Life – that’s one of the most refreshing and sensible discussions of “mental illness” that I’ve ever read.

Words create our reality – something that postmoderns talk about all the time. It’s a great misconception that postmoderns think words are meaningless or reality is a figment of our imagining (I deliberately did not say “figment of our imagination” because I think imagination is one of the most important words in the dictionary).

Making our world better often requires making our words better. I don’t – alas – have any suggestions for a replacement for “mental illness,” but I’m glad we’re talking about it.

mental health


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