If you think there’s no spiritual or supernatural world, and that consciousness/ emotions/ intention/ etc. are all products of the brain and the physical world… then what language to you use to distinguish between the mental aspects of your body, and the other aspects of your body?
I’ve been talking with JT Eberhard, good friend/ fellow atheist blogger/ Secular Student Alliance high school specialist/ total badass, about mental health issues. JT has anorexia, which he’s been blogging about; I have a history of mental illness in my family (alcoholism, mostly) and something of a personal history with it myself (depression — it hasn’t been a serious issue in some time, but I always have to pay attention to it and take active steps to prevent it from recurring).
So JT and I been talking about this stuff. And I frequently find that I want to say things like, “You seem like you’re in really good physical health right now, it’s your mental health I’m more concerned about.” Or, “I’ve been ignoring my physical health lately, and it’s really having an effect on my mental health.” You get the picture.
And then I stop, and think, “Wait a minute. Mental health is physical health. Our brains are part of our body. Our thoughts and feelings and impulses and intentions are physical, biological processes. Why am I implying that it isn’t? What can I say instead that doesn’t have that implication?”
And I get stuck. I’ve been trying to think of different language… and I’m coming up short. I’m wondering if we need new language. Or — better yet, since it works so much better — if we can re-purpose existing language to get this idea across.
I don’t just want this new/ re-purposed language when I’m talking about mental illness and mental health. We talk about the differences and relationships between our brains and the rest of our bodies a lot. And I do think this is a useful distinction to make. Yes, I think our brains are part of our bodies… but the brain/ mind/ thoughts/ feelings/ etc. parts of our body have some important differences from the muscles/ guts/ bones/ lungs/ circulation/ etc. parts. And it’s useful to be able to draw a distinction between them, and talk about the ways that they’re different, and the ways they’re similar, and the ways they overlap and interact.
But I want to be able to do that in a way that doesn’t invoke Cartesian dualism. When we say “mental versus physical,” it implies that the mental isn’t physical. I want to talk about the distinctions and connections between the mental and the non-mental parts of our bodies, without that implication. I want to talk about it in a way that acknowledges that the brain is part of the body.
And for those of us who are dealing with mental health issues, in ourselves and in people we care about, I have other reasons for wanting language that doesn’t separate the brain and the mind so radically from the rest of the body; for wanting language that acknowledges that the brain is a body part, and that mental health is physical health.
There’s a tremendous stigma and shame around mental illness — a stigma that’s not nearly as prevalent with non-mental illness. Yes, there’s some stigma around illness, some illnesses more than others… but we have much more compassion and acceptance of non-mental illness than we do with mental illness. Mental illness is still seen as a personal failure. Our society judges people who have depression or anorexia… in a way that we don’t judge people who have diabetes or cancer. I think if our language reflected that mental illness is a physical illness, it might mitigate that stigma and fear about it, and increase our empathy.
But I don’t know how to do that.
So I’m crowd-sourcing the problem. Thoughts? Is there a word we can use other than “physical” to mean “parts of the body that aren’t the brain and mind”?
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