Chuck Ruby, Ph.D.
There is no evidence supporting the claim that mental illness is caused by disease of the brain or body. More importantly, if such evidence were ever discovered we wouldn’t call the problem mental illness. We’d just call it illness, and it would fall within the scope of neurology or other subspecialties of medicine, such as nutritional science, immunology, and gastroenterology. So, ironically, discovering evidence of a disease basis for mental illness would threaten the existence of the mental health industry.
The defenders of the myth of mental illness will sometimes admit there is no evidence of disease. Yet they still consider themselves medical specialists, healthcare providers, and that mental illness is a matter of literal health and illness.
In 1812, Benjamin Rush published a textbook that sparked the birth of psychiatry and by extension the allied mental health professions. Its title was: Observations and Inquiries Upon the Diseases of the Mind. Rush was claiming the mind, not the brain, as psychiatry’s area of expertise. This is like how astrologists’ claim that constellations are their area of expertise, not the planets, stars, and galaxies themselves.
Still, notwithstanding their status of “mind doctors,” they desperately hold on to the brain as their organ of interest. This is because in order to be considered a legitimate medical specialty they must have a bodily organ or system identified as their focus.
So because mind appears to emanate from the brain, the defenders of the myth of mental illness continue to look for it in that three-pound mass of squishy matter located in our heads. This is similar to how astrologists continue to look for the meaning of earthly affairs by examining the heavens.
Disease of the mind has always been the mental health industry’s raison d’être. This has been the case ever since those early days when psychiatry took over the jurisdiction of troublesome people from religious authorities and it continues into the modern era of the medical model. So, despite the search for mental illness in the brain since then, there has always been the tacit belief that the disease wasn’t in the brain, but in the mind.
But this doesn’t make any sense. The brain is vastly different from the mind. The brain is an object, a material thing. It is located in three-dimensional space. You can pick it up, hand it to someone, see it, and feel its weight and texture. It is organic and has parts that can grow tumors, be damaged, and get infected.
In stark contrast to the brain, the mind is a subjective experience of consciousness that is not material in nature and has no location. The “contents” of mind, such as memories, thoughts, and feelings, are not substances and they are not located in the brain. They are not things that exist in nature like neurons, blood vessels, trees, rocks, and stars. Likewise, there are no “parts” of the mind that can break, get diseased, or become defective.
The mind can’t be heard, seen, touched, tasted, or smelled. We can never find it even though it seems to be omnipresent and located somewhere behind our eyes and between our ears. But go ahead and try. You won’t find it by looking there. Neither will you find thoughts, perceptions, images, sounds, wishes, or desires.
All these mind things are quite elusive and yet they are very real and powerful. This phenomenon of consciousness, or mind, is arguably the most mysterious thing about human life. But how can the mind, which is not of material substance and has no location, be literally diseased?
You might object to my reasoning that mind cannot be diseased by pointing out the example physical pain. For instance, the experience of pain from arthritis is an element that belongs to mind, not body. The pain itself has no location or material substance. It is purely an experience. Yet physicians treat it.
But the experience of arthritis pain is a symptom of a disease, not the disease itself. The disease is pathological joint inflammation. If the disease can be successfully treated, the associated experience of pain can be lessened. We would hope, though, that the primary focus of treatment is the disease and not just the pain. The root of the problem is the disease, even when the disease is incurable.
On the other hand, mental illness is about emotional pain that is not caused by disease, but by meaningful life experiences. Prescribing Valium to calm a person’s extreme distress is not medical treatment of a diseased mind. It merely masks the pain for comfort sake.
Using the chemical properties of a drug to prevent a person from feeling pain, whether physical or emotional, is fundamentally indistinguishable from suggesting he stop at the local bar and order a double shot of vodka. It is not treating a disease. Rather, it prevents the experience of pain. Experience itself cannot be diseased. It can only be a symptom of a disease.
If we opened up the definitional gates to the extent that any painful human experience is considered a symptom of a diseased mind, not only would it be nonsensical, it would also lead to inhumane results. The mental health industry would become dictatorial and any unwanted human experience would then be dragged into its paternalistic clutches.
But isn’t this already happening?