In a landmark report, the US surgeon general has advised the nation to see mental health as fundamental to public health.
The 458-page report is a survey of of a 50-year "revolution" in understanding mental illness and its links to physical illness. In fact, the report states, "the two are inseparable."
It finds public attitudes toward mental illness derive from the idea of 17th-century French philosopher Rene Descartes that mind and body are distinct: "He viewed the 'mind' as completely separable from the 'body' (or 'matter' in general). The mind (and spirit) was seen as the concern of organized religion, whereas the body was seen as the concern of physicians. This partitioning ushered in a separation between so-called 'mental' and 'physical' health, despite advances in the 20th century that proved the interrelationships between mental and physical health."
This misguided split between mind and body has put a stigma on mental illness, which is "too frequently to be spoken of in whispers and shame."
As a result, the report finds, nearly two-thirds of people with mental disorders do not seek treatment, even though 1 in 5 adults experiences a mental disorder in any given year, exacting "a staggering toll on millions of individuals, as well as on their families and communities and our nation as a whole."
The surgeon general, David Satcher, says that more is known about mental illness than mental health. But for most major mental disorders, there is insufficient understanding about their causes.
While medical research has made great advances, the report states, "There is no 'one size fits all' treatment; rather, people can choose the type of treatment that best suits them...."
This government report may have the same awakening impact on national health as the surgeon general's 1964 report on smoking. At the least, it may help remove the stigma from mental illness and create more public compassion toward those presently fearful of seeking treatment.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society