Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"mental"... "health"... It's complicated. More than you think.

Dear People Who Are Concerned with Mental Health,

It's time for a break... to talk about language. We're going to talk about the word "mental" and we're going to talk about the word "health."

Let's talk about the word health, since that may be an easier bit to chew on right now.

The world is in an interesting place right now. We are very preoccupied, with our science and our technology, with changing the nature of human health - we want people to be as healthy as we can be for as long as possible. Today we consider disease, illness, or impairment as a lack of health, or as a state of poor health, or a state of "undesirable" health. No one wants to be sick, we think, since sickness causes pain and discomfort.

I agree that sickness causes pain and discomfort. I agree that some illnesses are so uncomfortable and so painful that cures are not only desirable, but desperately needed.

Furthermore, I think no one deserves to be sick. No one asks for poor health. Nor should anyone have to suffer poor health when a realistic means exists to resolve the health issue.


The truth of reality is that illness and infirmity and accident still exist. And to some degree I can't imagine any conceivable future where we humans will obliterate all illnesses, or where we would be able to "cure" or "resolve" all disabilities, or where we would be able to prevent all accidents. I can't imagine a world where humans would be perfect. And frankly, I can't imagine myself wanting to live in such a world.

Most of us believe somewhere deep down inside that illness is an unnatural state. We think, this is hurting me, this is a burden, it's not normal for such things to happen to people. Being unhealthy is not a normal thing to happen to me!

I often wonder where this line of thinking comes from...

You see, I think the opposite. I think that we people are extremely vulnerable, more so than most of the creatures who roam this planet.

I think that we just like to imagine ourselves as being invincible... so invincible that we should not be touched by the effects of biology, bacteria, viruses, and accident. And I think our technology instills in us a false sense of security; that we can overcome the effects of human vulnerability with a bit of science, a lot of ingenuity (and some luck).

I think these are the lies we tell ourselves when we step out the door to face a world of unknown dangers and strangers. These are the lies that help us crawl out of bed to face the threats of another day.

And I think, how arrogant of us, or perhaps how delusional of us, to think that we are beyond vulnerability. How arrogant of humankind, to think that we are above the effects of illness, accident, or whathaveyou.

Health, as it is conventionally defined, is an unnatural state, as far as I'm concerned.

And so let's redefine the word "health."

Health should not mean an absence of illness, accident, or infirmity.

"Health" as a concept should be: a state where a person is comfortable or has reached a place of relative comfort with the effects of their vulnerable human existence.

Let me defend my definition before anyone criticizes me for suggesting that it may be okay to allow a person to remain in a state where they are quite unwell with no support or relief. I really want you to know that I think all illness/accident/infirmity should be dealt with/treated/and supported. No one should ever live in pain or discomfort due to their health, especially if that pain or discomfort can be alleviated with care or support.

Let me tell you more about the spirit of where the definition comes from...

If we stopped thinking of health in terms of something you either have or don't have, then we might begin to imagine that all people, to some degree, have to live with things that affect their health. And I think that "health" placed on a scale is a more realistic way to frame the concept.

Really, can you honestly name one person who is 100% healthy in all respects?

I can't. All the people I know, in one way or another, live with things, like conditions, or diseases, or accidents, or even life circumstances, that affect their health.

And so thinking of health as an "either/or" concept - either you have it, or you don't - is simply a lie. It's just the wrong way to think about health.

When we think of health as either/or, then we come at an interesting place where we imagine we have to understand why some people suffer from poorer health. And then we wind up picking on people who are affected by poorer health. We think, "You are unhealthy (by my arbitrary standard). Why? What have you done to be unhealthy? Are you eating poorly? Are you doing unsavory things with your body or mind?"

And we use the concept of "health" to make people feel different from one another. We use health to discriminate.

And then we have to live in a world that is based on a false differential. We shape our world based on concepts of health that are either/or. Any person with a condition which affects their abilities can attest to the very practical difficulties of trying to conform to a world that is built for "healthy" people. Finding ramps for a wheelchair can be a problem. Some workplaces don't even have an elevator to ensure that people with mobility issues can get around. And these are just some of the most simple examples of the consequences of a society that is built around a narrow and polarized concept of health.

We use health to discriminate, when really, all of us are "unhealthy" in one way or another.

The things that can affect our health really do not discriminate. Disease, accident, and infirmity are what I like to call "equal opportunists." These scourges go after each and every one of us, in one way or another, with equal tenacity. Some of us are just better equipped, or have better resources to escape the ravages of these opportunists.

And so why not admit that health, or lack of it, is not black and white. There are a million shades of grey.

If we respected that all people have vulnerability in common, then perhaps our world would be a little kinder, a little more understanding, and a smidge more compassionate.

Perhaps, if we understood health as a matter of degrees, then we would build a world to accommodate all, instead of a select few who are able to skirt by pretending life is just fine and dandy.

I'm fine with that, living in the grey area. In fact, I'm more comfortable living with the knowledge that I'm vulnerable than I would be pretending I was invincinble. I'm more comfortable with this knowledge because I understand that I need to take care of myself, and that I may need to protect myself from the things (and people!) that would want to prey on my health. Understanding that I am vulnerable inspires me to take control of my body and the things that can have effects on my health.

Sadly, we live in a world where people imagine themselves to be superheroes. We live in a world of black and white, where really, we are all varying shades of another colour.

And I'm not so fine with that. I'm not fine living in a world that refuses to respect the human condition. I'm not fine living in a world that won't even accommodate the human condition.

Where are you on the scale of health? Black? White? Some shade of grey?

In good faith (and health),

PS. We shall talk about the word "mental" in the next post! Until next time!

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