I blame Descartes. In the seventeenth century, this French philosopher and scientist split mind and body, arguing that the two were distinct. We’ve lived with the consequences ever since.
The NHS distinguishes between mind and body – and can use the division as an excuse not to fund mental health services. And I used to embrace the split too untill I was afflicted by two severe depressive episodes. I was astonished by how physically unwell I became.
I couldn’t sleep. My heart sped up. I felt nauseous. I was suicidal, not because I didn’t like my life but because I felt so rotten.After ten years of trying to understand the truth of mental illness, I now think Descartes is wrong… It’s not just that mental and physical health are connected. They are indissoluble. The mind doesn’t exist outside the body. A body without a mind is a corpse.
Try this for a moment. Take a deep breath. Let your shoulders drop. Close your eyes. Breathe. And notice something. It’s impossible to be physically relaxed and mentally tense. Equally, if you feel tense, your body follows.
In cultures where expressions of the mind are not allowed, this can manifest itself in symptoms of pain, even paralysis. Those who have suffered intolerable trauma such as childhood sexual abuse often have a wide range of physical symptoms.
Equally the physical body breaks down when the mind can’t take any more trauma. Thryoid disorders, psoriasis, and arthritis are all autoimmune illness which can develop at times of emotional stress.
Once we accept the union of mental and physical health, a few things become clear. First we should ditch the word ‘mental health’ altogether. We should talk about someone’s health – all in. We would lose much of the stigma that still surrounds saying we are ‘mentally’ unwell. We’re not. We’re just unwell.
Second, diagnosis. We need to look more to underlying causes for why we often feel so glum, many of them physical. We sit at our desks. We eat junk food. We often suffer from chronic high levels of inflammation. We live in cities. Divorced from nature. And each other.
Finally, treatment. What promotes good cardiovascular, endocrine, digestive and and musculoskeletal health also promotes good mental health and vice versa. Yet GPs are given only a few hours of nutritional training.
When I look back at my own battle with the Black Dog, I wish I’d understood that my mental health was embodied. I do now.
Thanks Descartes, but your time is up.