Sign in Urgent Care Center

For years I have waged a personal campaign to not call people with mental illnesses ‘mentally ill’ as we would not call people with cancer ‘cancerous’. I was trying to say: “do not identify a person as an illness.” But now I realize that the real problem was not with labeling people as mentally ill but with the word ‘mental’ itself. How is a mental illness different from any physical illness? Mental implies that the illness is of the mind, whatever that means, but not of the body or brain, like Alzheimer’s or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

On a recent Sunday in Church the chairman of Milwaukee County Mental Health Committee prayed for people with mental illness and/or substance abuse issues. I realized that by calling the illness ‘mental’ we are putting it into the same category as alcoholism. A local church based community organization deals with mental illness in its Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse (AODA) Treatment committee. I understand that medical books treat mental illness in the same category as alcohol and drug abuse illnesses. I am not saying that drug and alcohol addictions are not physical and mental illnesses. They are, but mental illnesses are not ‘addictions’ and cannot be resolved with programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

My deceased son really could not identify with having a mental illness. I tried calling it a ‘brain illness but was contradicted by mental health workers. When we heard about PTSD he could really identify with this diagnosis. He even recalled a serious car accident in which he was involved with in college that was a turning point in his life.

Once at a NAMI meeting a doctor described mental illnesses as illnesses which people have genetic predispositions for, but which are usually set off by some traumatic event. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can occur after a person has been through a traumatic event. These events can include: “Natural disasters, Car crashes, Sexual or physical assaults, Terrorist attacks or Combat during wartime”. Our son was very creative, a true artist, and he might have triggered his genetically predisposed brain illness from the car accident or by some other traumatic experiences.

My son self-medicated with alcohol. I remember a mental health ‘case worker’ telling me that people with mental illnesses are like alcoholics and needed to hit bottom before they could accept treatment. At the time I did not know much about the brain but I did not believe him. Once, after going through an alcohol treatment program and ready to deal with his brain illness, the mental health clinic insisted he go to another alcohol rehabilitation program. I was upset at the agency but my son went along with the agency’s recommendation. However, when not drinking and still not showing further results, he was put into another forced living situation — one not of his choosing. Later, after he went back to drinking and his roommate tried to hurt him, he was allowed to live with family. Eventually, when he did not have the ‘desirable outcomes’ for the agency and its funding, he was dropped, even though he had been with the agency for 15 years. Under a commitment order he was then sent to yet another agency where he became just a number with little or no personal, compassionate care. He remained there for less than a year when he committed suicide by taking an overdose of his prescription medicine with alcohol.

Public television had an excellent series on the brain a few years ago. When they got to ‘brain illnesses’, like schizophrenia and bipolar conditions, they talked about the physical impact of these illnesses in the brain. Two professionals on the show talked of how they had gotten control of their brain illnesses by the judicial use of medicine along with therapy. The host stated how therapeutic that combination was and all persons should have access to both, concurrently. However, a doctor on the show pointed out how this was nearly impossible for most persons because medical treatment was often handled by ‘mental health agencies’ giving out medicine; but, most insurance programs only allowed a brief doctor’s appointment every three months. Many agencies do not have professional therapists on staff; and a therapist one might have, is often not connected to the medical treatment that person is receiving. Mental Health agencies often separate physical medical treatment from therapy, even though the combination serves a person best. Therapy sessions are proven to cause positive physical changes in the brain but ‘case workers’ are not therapists or medical personnel.

A doctor once told me — if your son was suffering from a car accident or heart attack would you not take him to an emergency room of a hospital, with or without his consent; or to a clinic with only caseworkers to care for him. A person suffering a ‘mental illness’ should be treated the same way. Hospitals have slowly rid themselves of ‘psychiatric beds’ so they do not have to take in people suffering from mental health crises.

A friend of mine, a certified ‘peer specialist’ for persons with mental illnesses, also has a mental illness. I asked her what she called her illness. She told me she describes it as a ‘neurological condition or disorder’. She found that people looked at her with more understanding than if she called it a ‘mental illness’. I read recently how the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) was now calling these illnesses ‘mental health conditions’ since young adults have difficulty associating with the term ‘mental illness’.

If we call what we now call ‘mental illness’ a ‘neurological condition’ instead, it will also squarely put these illnesses under ‘medical health conditions’. If a person with a ‘neurological disorder’ crisis goes to the ER of a hospital that person will be treated as any other patient. If health clinics which we now call ‘mental health clinics’ were clinics for neurological disorders, these clinics would have medical doctors and therapists for treatment. Hospitals are required to treat people with brain illnesses and brain injuries. This switch from ‘mental illness’ to ‘brain illness’ might cut out some mental health organizations and their funding, as well as many ‘case and social workers’. But brain illnesses would then not be treated in the criminal justice system as they are now, when they are called mental illnesses. Also, treating a person with a health crisis as having a neurological condition would insure proper treatment at the first psychiatric episode and save in the long run money society spends on the revolving door of mental illness, especially in the criminal justice system. And, it would free up money for more doctors and more therapists to treat these disorders or conditions as they should be treated, as medical issues requiring medical and therapeutic components in a competent and compassionate manner.

At a recent visit to an Urgent Care Center I found this sign, to the left, on the wall: “IF YOU HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY OR ARE IN LABOR, YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO RECEIVE ……..An appropriate MEDICAL SCREENING EXAMINATION…. Necessary STABILIZING TREATMENT… appropriate TRANSFER to another facility…”

If this is accurate, all we need do is drop the ‘mental of mental illness’ and replace it with ‘neurological illness or disorder’ and we can finally treat persons with these medical conditions like they should be treated.


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