02/11/2013 05:37 EST | Updated 04/13/2013 05:12 EDT

Time to Remove "Mental" from Mental Illness

depressed sad woman on white...

As someone with chronic mental illness, I want to know that should I need assistance during a mental health crisis that the health care system will be my primary care provider -- not the criminal justice system.

Mental illness, as old as time itself, is still misunderstood, poorly diagnosed and so stigmatized that far too many of our citizens are left to suffer in silence even when surrounded by those entrusted with their care. It is not as if mental illness is a new, exotic disorder.

The word "mental" carries fearful images; a man decapitating a passenger on a bus; a young man seemingly dressed as a super hero shooting randomly in a movie theatre; mothers, fathers and nannies killing children and pleading insanity. These are our referents when we think of mental illness.

Too many citizens with mental illness have died at the hands of the police who have too little training regarding the care of those in a mental health crisis.The police are not the people to engage the mentally ill. Ashley Smith died because she was treated by guards, unprepared for her needs, within the criminal justice system. Her treatment was criminal -- there was no justice.

The videos of her inhumane treatment are right out of a B-rated horror/science fiction movie. She was tied down and shackled like an alien waiting to be dissected. She was surrounded by those in authority clothed in protective coverings as if they feared contamination. She was injected, involuntarily, with anti-psychotic drugs. She was shipped all over the country, transported on a plane, manacled like Hannibal Lecter, without a thought about her needs or fears.

Adults stood by and watched a human being choke her own body and soul and did nothing. Just following orders. She was "mental" after all. Her treatment speaks to the ignorance of our understanding of mental illness, not only by lay people, but those within the medical system.

Mental illness afflicts more than 20 per cent of our population; seven million Canadians from all walks of life. About 3,600 people commit suicide in Canada each year. That's about 10 suicides per day. For every suicide death, there are an estimated 20 to 25 attempts. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Canadians between the ages of 10 and 24.There's no excuse, today, for death from mental illness because the prognosis for mental illness is as good as if not better than those diagnosed with chronic physical diseases.

It is the stigma, the shame and prejudice attached to the phrase "mental illness" that keeps people from accessing care. They fear the diagnosis; they fear the response of others to them. They fear being considered morally weak, flawed in character. They fear it is a death sentence. Too often, it is.

Dr. Eric Kandel, the Nobel-Prize-winning neurologist and Professor of brain science at Columbia University contends that the term "mental" illness can distort public understanding of the nature of these disorders. "All mental processes are brain processes, and therefore all disorders of mental functioning are biological diseases," he says. "The brain is the organ of the mind. Where else could [mental illness] be if not in the brain?" Social and environmental factors, "do not act in a vacuum...They act in the brain." Describing mental illnesses as brain malfunctions helps minimize the shame often associated with them. "Schizophrenia is a disease like pneumonia. Seeing it as a brain disorder de-stigmatizes it immediately."

Mental illness is not in the mind; it is in the brain. This is a relatively new understanding. Depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and OCD have biological and environmental pre-disposing risk factors. Why should these illnesses still carry the stigma that it's all in your head?

Changing the name from "mental" to brain illness can be the beginning of a change in attitude towards those of us with these illnesses. A change in perspective can lead to a better understanding and acceptance. It will at the very least begin to reduce the stigma the term has carried from centuries of misconceptions and fear. Let's begin the discussion.

To learn more about mental illness, listen to my six-part radio series.

The Toll Of Mental Illness In Canada