Mind-language in the Age of the Brain: Is “Mental illness” a Useful Term?

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The term “mental illness” has been criticized on a variety of grounds, most notably by those who have argued that the term is merely a “myth” or a “metaphor.” Some have argued that if and when so-called mental illnesses are exhaustively explained by disturbed brain function or structure, we will no longer need the term “mental illness,” on the supposition that neuropathology and psychopathology are mutually exclusive constructs. The author argues that, on the contrary, the locution “mental illness” is not rendered useless or unnecessary when neuropathology is discovered, nor is the term “mental illness” a metaphor. Rather, it is an instance of “ordinary language” that we apply quite literally to certain types of suffering and incapacity in the realm of thought, emotion, cognition, and behavior. Although its use carries the risk of perpetuating mind-body dualism and it may be misused as a pejorative label, “mental illness” is likely to remain a useful and meaningful descriptive term, even as we discover the neurobiological underpinnings of psychiatric illness. (Journal of Psychiatric Practice 2015;21:79–83)

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