Thursday, 18 July 2013

Mental health prejudice

We are made up of a mind and body. In comparison to the body, which has recognisable unconscious elements (e.g. we don’t control our heart beat) the mind is seen as conscious and therefore closer to the centre of who we are; control, moral agency and personal responsibility are seen to emanate from this conscious centre (after all we can create thoughts, can’t we?). In this view, the body is more peripheral and is something carrying less personal responsibility. Therefore, when the mind is ill, prejudice sees it as a failure of conscious control and the sufferer is somehow to blame. Illnesses of the mind are seen as having internal, personal causes. In contrast, when the body is ill the illness feels like it is imposed on us by an external cause and is fought by mechanisms of the body outside of conscious control.

This prejudice is flawed. It fails to acknowledge that the mind also has unconscious elements outside of direct control. For example, a susceptibility to depression is part of the structure and function of the brain. This is part of our thrownness (the state in which we exist) and thrownness is blameless (in the same way we didn’t choose whether we were male of female).

Despite having no choice over the fact of mental illness, we are not helpless: we can choose our reaction to it in the same way we choose to put a plaster cast on a broken leg to help it heal.

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