New ways of thinking about psychological discomfort and distress

Note – As we see on CNN and elsewhere, for educational purposes the following talks about the n-word (in reference to black people) and the f-word (in reference to gay people) 

Today’s tweeted story reminds me of a somewhat unpopular viewpoint of mine and a few others.

I don’t expect this view to be embraced overnight. In my opinion society is not yet in a place to fully get it. Sometimes I feel like a feminist, black or gay rights activist must have felt in the 1940s. It’s not too hard to imagine how most people back then would have reacted to innovative thinkers concerned with social justice. And it is not so different, I believe with the idea of mental illness.

The word “illness” lends support and legitimacy to the current medical model. And the term is used so often that to simply question it is usually met with indifference or, worse, hostility.

But there are other ways of looking at psychological discomfort and distress. Ways that involve personal transformation, spirituality and, yes, our largely unknown and mysterious universe.

Catholic devotional image of Saint Dymphna, the patron of those afflicted with mental and nervous disorders
Catholic devotional image of Saint Dymphna, the patron saint of those with mental and nervous afflictions

So when I see the term “mental illness” a red flag goes up.

Several corporations have launched “Let’s talk about mental illness” campaigns. I’m not certain how sincere these campaigns are. They may be genuine. They may also be an effort to publicly shine with the hope of boosting profits. Possibly both.

But what concerns me most is the persistent and widespread use of the phrase mental illness.


  • In the doctor’s office I saw a sign that read, FACE MENTAL ILLNESS
  • On an Ontario highway a large billboard said I GOT MY DEGREE DESPITE MY MENTAL ILLNESS, replete with a smiling, slightly unusual looking woman wearing a mortarboard
  • At Catholic Mass a Jesuit priest and a Monsignor repeatedly offer up prayers “for those suffering from mental illness”

And, as I say, corporations regularly advocate discussion and promote charities for “mental illness.”

Sounds good, right?

Well, not to me. Sometimes I’ve felt that these drives are tantamount to saying something like:

  • It’s okay to be a n*****
  • Face being a n*****
  • I got my degree despite being a n*****
  • We offer our prayers for the n*****s among us
  • Let’s talk about being a n*****

Or, perhaps, something like:

  • It’s okay to be a f**
  • Face being a f**
  • I got my degree despite being a f**
  • We offer our prayers for the f**s among us
  • Let’s talk about being a f**

If that’s not clear enough, I am alluding to the old, pejorative n-word once commonly used for black people, and the old pejorative f-word once widely used for gays.

For those who question or see beyond the overly medicalized understanding of psychological suffering, many signs and slogans about so-called mental illness seem strangely paradoxical and indicate just how unenlightened we are in 21st century.

It’s time to not just talk about mental illness in the mainstream sense, but also about the negative and limiting connotations carried by the very phrase, mental illness. This phrase is widely and unconsciously used today, just as the n- and f-words were once ignorantly tossed about in the past.

Words have power. They affect how people think and act. And the built-in assumptions and implications of many words can be harmful or helpful.

So I offer this perspective as something to think about. It’s time to talk. Not unconsciously, just kicking the same old ideas around—but consciously, with open, discerning minds.

About the Author

Michael Clark did his PhD in Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa, Canada (1997). His doctoral thesis focuses on Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity and Michel Foucault’s postmodern theory.



  1. I guess mental illness is meant to be an improvement on ‘nutter’ or ‘mad’…How would you rather describe someone whose mind doesn’t operate in a ‘normal’ way, resulting in significant harm to that person? I mean, if you have visions nobody else has, but you can still live effectively in this world, maybe any kind of label is superfluous. On the other hand if you can’t really survive because of the unusual way your mind works, that’s a problem – how then do we label it in order to treat it? Or don’t we?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks that’s an excellent question that highlights some of the things my little blurb doesn’t address. So many people probably saw this and just wrote me off as an extremist without taking the time to actually engage me. So I do appreciate your calling me out. 🙂

    I’ve blogged about this throughout my sister site,, and have made scattered references to the idea thru comments at other peoples’ web sites. So you think I’d be able to nicely summarize here. The problem is, it really is a complicated issue. Simple one-liners just cannot do the thing justice.

    But you make the important point that some people may harm themselves and/or others. How do we deal with them? Believe it or not, I think in some situations current “medications” as they are called may be appropriate. If lithium keeps a person steady who otherwise couldn’t function, or an antidepressant keeps a person from suicide, well, yes, take it. Even taking Haldol, which is a heavy duty drug with serious long term effects, would be better than having someone killing themselves or innocents.

    Having said that, I think in many cases doctors put people on meds and then walk away. A good doctor would monitor that patient with a view toward getting them off the meds. All meds have “side” effects, which is really just a euphemism for negative effects. We hear about short term negative effects but not so much about long term negative effects. But they are potentially nasty or fatal.

    My other reservation has to do with looking at the person in a sociological and spiritual context. The term mental illness puts all the attention on the individual and overlooks things like societal hypocrisy, corruption, organized crime, and, I believe, positive and negative spiritual influences.

    Sometimes I think it’s like cracking open a radio and rearranging the wires because we don’t like the radio station we’re listening to.

    With some people, behavioral changes might have a better effect than drugs. For instance, that guy who downloads all sorts of stuff from the Pirate Bay doesn’t make the connection that stealing is bringing in bad vibes and making him feel heavy and depressed. So what does he do? He keeps stealing and goes to the doctor to get an antidepressant. The antidepressant makes him feel numb. So he downloads more PhotoShop or whatever to try to feel better. But that just makes it all worse. The problem is that he’s so brainwashed by our compartmentalized science that he doesn’t make the connection between sin and feeling lousy (to use spiritual terminology). I could have said “between bad choices and feeling lousy.”

    As for what I’d call this, well, I’m not sure. I just think that a more holistic, comprehensive view of the person is needed. We’re not toasters with burnt out elements. It’s rarely that simple.

    The following person made a stab at how we might name discomfort. I don’t agree with everything he says but I was glad that at least one other person is questioning.

    Thanks again for the great comment.


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