Mental illness – Just another physical illness?

I quite frequently hear mental health activists and advocates complaining about how mental illness isn’t given the same funding as physical illness and is often seen as less important. But in my opinion, these people are just as bad as the people they’re complaining about, simply by making the division between ‘mental health’ and ‘physical health’. As far as I can tell our brain is simply a part of our body and our cognition is just another biochemical process of our body. The heart pumps blood, the stomach digests food, the brain sends out electric pulses. I think it’s wrong to suggest that ‘mental illness’ and ‘physical illness’ are different things. Essentially it’s one term for one organ, the brain, and one for everything else. Strange. People seem to have this idea that what goes on in our brain is sort of magical and not really linked to the rest of our body. But how can it be? As I have already said, the brain is a part of our body like every other organ and what it does is determined by our genetic code and environmental triggers, like every other organ.  Is the division made through lack of understanding of the brain?

It makes sense to have categories of illness – cardiac, renal, respiratory – it makes everything more organised. But it’s the term ‘mental illness’ that confuses me. Most large hospitals have a neurology department dedicated to brain problems. And yet many also have a psychiatric department devoted to… what? Oh yeah, brain problems. So how are they different? I do sort of understand the difference between what is considered neurological or psychiatric. For example, I know that someone with schizophrenia would see a psychiatrist and someone with Alzheimer’s disease would see a neurologist. I just don’t know why. Both illnesses involve a problem with the brain. Wouldn’t it make sense if they were to be part of the same category?

I have reached 2 conclusions. The first is fairly sceptical. One main difference I can think of between neurological conditions and psychiatric conditions is that we tend to be more aware of the causes of neurological conditions. Perhaps psychiatry is just a way of describing neurological conditions for which we haven’t yet figured out the cause. Secondly, the symptoms of psychiatric disorders tend to be mainly related to how we think. Neurological conditions would perhaps best be described as diseases of the brain and nerves that affect functions other than cognition (of course Alzheimer’s affects memory, but since patients still have the ability to try and remember things I’m classing memory loss as different to cognitive disruption). I still don’t think it makes sense for psychiatry not to at least be a sub-category of neurology. In a hospital you have one heart department, one kidney department, why not one brain department too? I feel that the confusion between psychiatry (cognitive brain issues) and neurology (non-cognitive brain issues) backs up my earlier and main point about how strange it is to have separate terms for ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ health.

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