The Right to Mental Health?
Chuck Ruby, Ph.D., Psychologist
Earlier this month, Dainius Pūras, M.D., was interviewed by Awais Aftab, M.D., of the Psychiatric Times. Dr. Pūras was asked about his experiences as a United Nations Special Rapporteur from 2014 to 2020. In that role, he was charged with assessing the human rights aspects of mental health1 systems across the globe and reporting his findings to the United Nations Human Rights Council.
A primary concern of Dr. Pūras' was his dissatisfaction with the traditional separation of physical health and mental health. He believes this separation causes stigma and discriminates against people who seek mental health services. He further thinks that combining them under the same rubric of health and medicine is the solution to achieving mental health parity, the end of stigma and discrimination, and the advancement of human rights for those seeking mental health services.
In addition to merging physical and mental health, he proposed that both systems deemphasize the biomedical approach, asserting that psychiatry and mental health professions are in a position to remind the rest of the medical world that medicine is fundamentally a social science. In other words, health and illness are largely affected by social determinants, such as poverty and other social inequities, and the field of medicine should be addressing these social determinants and not just the defective biology of patients.
I agree that the discrimination and stigmatization of those seeking mental health services are due to separating it from the rest of medicine, and I am glad to see Dr. Pūras objecting to the excessive biomedicalization of human living. However, I disagree that the solution to this problem is to merge mental and physical health.
Doing so would strengthen the medical industry's domination over individual lives, and solidify its role of morally judging the appropriateness of distress and behavior. Notwithstanding the importance of addressing social factors that impact health and illness, the study of medicine is primarily a chemical, mechanical, and biological endeavor. It is not suited for providing expertise in making judgements about how we should respond to the emotional challenges of living.
So, instead of combining physical and mental health, I suggest keeping them separate, but in a fundamentally different way. The solution to stigma and discrimination, and the subsequent threats to human rights for those seeking mental health assistance, is to realize that the essence of mental health care is not literally about health and illness. It definitely isn't about using chemical, mechanical, and biological knowledge and skills to correct dysfunctional physiology.
Instead, the term "mental health" is a figurative description of social challenges, personal meaning, emotional distress, and one's responses to these things. Therefore, it is in a domain completely separate from the study of medicine and the literal idea of health and illness, not a different type to merge with the physical type.
Of course, as with all human activity, there is underlying biology at work. This fact, however, is not the same as claiming the biology involved is defective or malfunctioning. It doesn't even mean the biology causes those human actions any more than it could be said the actions cause the biology to occur.2 For example, when we walk or talk, there is biology that allows for walking and talking. Does biology cause walking and talking? Or, does walking and talking cause the biology to occur.
The same goes for when we think, feel emotions, and take action of any kind. There is biology always at work. Yet this fact doesn't mean that biology causes those things, and it clearly doesn't mean those things are disorders or illnesses caused by defective biology. Even when those human actions are very problematic, it is not logical to conclude they equal illness and lack of them equals health. If I walk in front of a bus and get injured, the decision to walk and the act of walking are not illnesses. Instead, the subsequent injury is the illness.
Having said this, the field of medicine does have an important, but limited, role at the intersection of physical health and mental health matters. Specifically, medical intervention can serve three purposes: 1) it can alleviate the negative physiological correlates of personal actions and distress (e.g., gastric damage, injuries); 2) it can identify and treat physiological defects, the results of which mimic mental health problems (e.g., poor nutrition, urinary tract infections); and 3) it can offer chemicals to those who choose, with full informed consent, to subdue their experiences of distress (e.g., Valium, Zoloft) just like it does for people who want to numb arthritis or headache pain.
This limited role is inherent in the fact that mental health problems are based on a definition that is void of any physiological ailment that medical specialists can diagnose and treat. More importantly, in situations where there is a physiological affliction, psychiatry (or the other mental health professions) would not handle it; the appropriate medical specialty would step in. Psychiatrists and psychologists don't treat gastric damage, broken bones, vitamin deficiencies, or urinary tract infections.
So, Dr. Pūras has good reason to be concerned about the separation of physical and mental health and the stigmatization and discrimination that come from it. However, it must be remembered that the mental health system created this problem in the first place in its definition of mental disorder. The DSM-5 defines it as a disturbance in thinking, feeling, or acting that is caused by impairment in mental functioning. Setting aside the circular nature of this definition, it makes mental disorder sound like a matter of dysfunction in a person, just like with physical illnesses.
But the main problem with this definition, and the reason it necessitate the separation of physical and mental health matters, is that such impairment in mental functioning cannot be identified without using moral judgments. It is not identified with an examination of chemical, mechanical, or biological dysfunction.
This is why DSM diagnoses and their criteria are developed out of the wrangling and consensus of committee members and not evidence of impairment. They are based on an aggregate moral judgment: what should we be distressed about, how much distress should we feel, how long should we feel distressed, and what should we do about the distress. In stark contrast to this, physical health matters are defined as actual bodily defects that threaten a person's physiological viability. No moral judgment is involved in identifying or theorizing about physical illness.
Therefore, it appears clear that the only way to eliminate the stigmatization and discrimination of those seeking mental health services is to eliminate this medical-moral model of mental health. Otherwise, those seeking services will continue to be seen as suffering from a mixture of medical and moral problems, which is why there is such popular fear and derision of those said to be mentally ill. It is also why they are stigmatized and discriminated against, and why their human rights are frequently violated.
By continuing to conflate physical health and mental distress, and anointing medical professionals as experts in the latter, the mental health system will always be prone to stigma and discrimination, opening the doors to involuntary and forced treatment. The resulting irony is that while we frequently see such coercion within the mental health system, we rarely see it with physical health. People who are diagnosed with physical health problems, such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease are rarely treated involuntarily, against their will (unless, of course, they are judged mentally ill and, thus, not able to make "wise" choices).
In this way, the mental health professions have taken on a medical-moral role in identifying inappropriate (i.e., wrong, abnormal, bad, "sick") personal conduct and experiences, portraying them as the result of something impaired in the person, and seeking various ways to muzzle them. There is no way to medically correct the alleged impairment because there is no identifiable impairment to correct. All too often, the conventional methods of treatment are merely physical, chemical, and electrical restraint. Talk therapy, or psychotherapy, can also be a form of restraint in the form of scolding people for having these inappropriate experiences and persuading or coercing them to change their conduct. None of these are forms of medical treatment. They are forms of control.
Dr. Pūras' international efforts to ensure the right to mental health is a very worthy effort, but it means different things depending on the definition of “mental health” as explored above. If it is defined as in the DSM, then that right hardly applies to the person so affected. This is because, by definition, the affected person’s thoughts, emotions, and actions are the product of a dysfunction. Therefore, that person’s decisions and choices are not to be valued or honored because they are the tainted product of that dysfunction.
If, however, the right to mental health is defined as one’s right to decide how to resolve personal challenges, what to do about emotional distress, and what actions to take to resolve those challenges and distressing feelings, including which services of the conventional mental health system to take advantage of, then we’re really talking about respecting human rights.
In fact, Dr. Pūras was adamant that we should work toward eliminating all forms of coercive treatment and base our services on individuals' preferences and desires, even in cases where they are considered psychotic. But I don't see how this can possibly happen without abandoning the medical-moral model of human distress that defines mental health problems as something impaired in the person.
In his further emphasis on respecting individual choice, Dr. Pūras, pointed out the importance of democratic systems for the promotion of good mental health and adherence to human rights. But how can the right of mental health exist if the mental health system itself is not democratic, and instead mirrors the many totalitarian and authoritarian regimes that devalue the desires of its citizens? He lamented that mental health professionals and academics frequently block attempts to change the status quo, making the right to mental health impossible, since it prevents fully informed consent and it allows human rights to be routinely violated.
It appears clear to me that in order to arrive at a truly human rights based mental health system, we have to understand that the essence of mental health is not a matter of health and illness. Therefore, we need to find substitute terms for "mental illness" and "mental health" that accurately describe the very real problems that people endure and what can be done to help them. "Mental health" must not be seen as a different kind of hybrid health split off from physical health, and it must not be merged with physical health. It must be recognized as having to do with personal meaning, distress, and choice.
1I use the term "mental health" only as a metaphor. I do not intend to imply that it is a literal matter of health and illness.
2See Chapter 12, The Difference Between Brain and Mind in my book Smoke and Mirrors: How You Are Being Fooled About Mental Illness - An Insider's Warning to Consumers. Welcome, MD: Clear Publishing for an elaboration of this conundrum.