Mind/body dualism at heart of lack of sympathy for mental illness

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August 11, 2010 by sharonbrennan

I read a really great story today about a new MRI brain scan that seems able to accurately diagnose Autism Spectrum Disorder, which covers illnesses such as severe autism right through to Asperger’s syndrome. It’s been all over the news so you can read the details in depth yourself, but what great news it is!
A new way of diagnosing any illness is great but even more so for a mental illness. Having a hidden illness myself I know what it’s like for people not to think I’m genuinely disabled or in need of help. I rarely ever get offered a seat on a bus even if I’m panting and gasping for breath.

But it’s so much worse for those who have a mental illness. Right through Western philosophy, from Descartes infamous, “I think therefore I am”, we as humans have tended to think of our brain and the way we think as separate from our body. This dualism is right at the heart of why we find it so hard to understand and sympathise with mental illness. “I can’t work many hours because my lungs don’t work” is much easier to empathise with than, “I find work difficult because I find social interaction impossible.” I can’t make my lungs work harder but it seems impossible to argue that you can’t think differently.

So this news, that there are clear differences in the brain scans of those with autism and those without, gives society a chance to stop and rethink how they view mental illness. ASD is the result, at least in part, of a physical problem in just another one of the body’s organs, the brain.

And for those who suffer from ASD they can have a better understanding of their condition and can start to find tools to cope with situations they find hard. Rather than feel stupid or a social outcast they can view themselves as just someone else in society who has a disability and can start to work to overcome the limitations it presents.

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