Terry Simpson on the non-existence of “Mental Illness”

Bad ‘Mental’ Things Come From Pain, Not Illness

By Terry Simpson


I think whether there is such a thing as “mental illness”, or not, is a crucial question, and the lack of a consistent line on it has made the survivor’s movement weak and fragmented. It’s as if none of us really like the idea of ‘mental illness’ but we don’t have a better idea, so I thought I’d thrown in my view of how we can develop a different way of looking at things. Personally I think the idea of “mental illness” is a conceptual mistake, and that what we’re really talking about is human suffering.

I heard that the Chinese have a way of describing a storm that “the sky is ill”, and I think that’s a lovely descriptive image. We can use “the mind is ill” in a similar poetical way, but we shouldn’t get confused that there is a real medical problem, in the same way that a storm in the sky is not something a GP can do anything about. I’m sure there’s no such thing as “mental illness”, but I don’t want to suggest that people’s suffering isn’t real. Rather that the suffering is the point. It’s clear from our everyday life that our minds don’t function well when we are hurt. When you bang your finger with a hammer, you don’t think clearly for a while. On a deeper level with things like bereavement, the effect on our mental state is more pronounced. In the normal course of things we deal with the anguish by grieving, and we heal with time, friends, and various coping mechanisms. But if somehow the pain doesn’t get dealt with, and accumulates, or if there’s a major trauma, then I think it can lead to all the really serious bad “mental” things that we experience – the vicious voices, delusions, hallucinations, fragmented thoughts, wanting to hurt ourselves etc. But these are symptoms of our pain, not of some kind of brain ‘illness’.

(Some people say they enjoy their madness and mania, and that it’s not about suffering at all, but I think if our experience of being ‘high’ wasn’t tinged with some kind of pain, we wouldn’t be so inflexible, or make the rubbish decisions that get us into trouble!)

‘Illness’ is a concept that refers to the physical body. When you use it about anything else you’re using an image, a metaphor. So the question “what’s the cure for mental illness?” can never be satisfactorily answered. It leads to all the spurious solutions we know about. It’s the wrong question. The question ”what can we do about human suffering?” leads to far more interesting and fruitful answers.

So to sum up I think we need a paradigm shift – throw “illness” in the dustbin and replace it with a concept based on suffering/trauma/distress – whatever word doesn’t make you cringe, but one that acknowledges the truth of the matter as far as I can see it. That we are dealing with human pain here, and not any kind of “illness”.