What is Mental Health and Mental Illness?
by Joe Tarantolo, M.D.
What is “mental health”?
What is “mental illness”?
No, I don’t like the terms either.
Let’s narrow it down some. How does one define health since the advent of "Humanism"? I’m defining humanism as simply the philosophical position that MAN IS THE MEASURE OF ALL THINGS. It is that position contrary to religious ideas that God defines what is right, and humans follow.
A few hundred years ago, health, in western culture, would most likely be, at least in part, a religious question. That’s for another time to consider since many patients do present with religious and biblical issues: "I am a messenger of God," "The Virgin Mary is a lover of mine," "God has chosen me," "My family has disowned me for marrying a----," etc.
The current psychiatric orthodoxy as reflected in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) gives us illnesses and diseases defined by committee.
Except for the dementias, there is no scientific way of making these diagnoses. For the most part, and at best, what the committee defines are arbitrary clusters of symptoms: anxiety, depression, panic attacks, bulimia, psychoses, personality features, etc.
So, the DSM does a good job of describing hundreds of SYMPTOMS, and these are symptoms of alleged mental illness because the committees say so. Okay. If they are the symptoms, then what is the illness? That is the challenge I propose to my colleagues.
I will give my very simple definition of mental health. It is THE CAPACITY TO SUFFER! And mental illness is the flight from suffering. The DSM simply lists the in- numerable ways to avoid suffering. Whether it is the psychotic flight , vomiting food to keep oneself pretty, panic instead of facing fear, dissociating, etc.
So, colleagues, what is your simple definition? What is mental health and mental illness?
Dr. Tarantolo is a graduate of Mt. Sinai Medical School and a board-certified psychiatrist. He has been in practice for more than three decades on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., where his practice is dedicated to psychotherapy and helping patients withdraw from psychiatric drugs. Dr. Tarantolo has helped hundreds of patients come off psychiatric drugs through individual and group psychotherapy, herbal remedies, meditation, nutrition, and spiritual counseling.