What is mental illness?

by Joanne Kelly

I recently stumbled across a definition of mental illness (thanks to a short video produced by NAMI Montana that is making the rounds on social media) I hadn’t heard before, and it’s one that resonates with me.

They define mental illness as “chronic disruption of the neural circuits of the brain.” The video goes on to say that the disrupted neural circuits affect the functioning of the brain, which in turn affects how a person thinks, feels and acts. Those disrupted neural circuits can dramatically affect a person’s interpretations of life events, even to the point where they sense things that aren’t there (hallucinations) or believe things that aren’t true (delusions).

Why do I like this definition? It is clear and straightforward.  A 12-year-old can understand it. If your wiring is chronically disrupted, your thoughts, feeling and actions can be chronically disrupted. There’s no hint of judgment or blame.

Just as when the circuits in your pancreas are chronically disrupted, it can stop producing sufficient insulin. As a result, your blood glucose levels can skyrocket, which can lead to extreme fatigue and irritability. It also is a biological disruption that manifests in changed behavior.

Yet I have never heard of a faith leader attributing diabetes to personal sin, while there’s no shortage of faith leaders who attribute mental illness to sin. I’ve never heard of a faith leader suggesting that if you were only more diligent in your spiritual practice you would not need to be treated for your diabetes, but the minister of a church I attended for many years made that claim about mental illness from the pulpit one Sunday.

Of course there is an element of personal responsibility that is necessary for managing both mental illnesses (brain disorders) and diabetes (pancreas disorders). But let us – as faith communities and as individuals — recognize the confluence of biological and environmental factors that contribute to these disorders and offer people who suffer from them (and other illnesses) the support and acceptance they need.

Joanne Kelly

INMI co-founder and board treasurer

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the submitter. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the board of directors or members of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness.