Challenging the notion of mental illness

In the world of mental health, the concept of 'mental illness' has long been the foundation upon which various theories, treatments, and interventions are built. However, a growing body of evidence and an evolving understanding of the human mind suggest that the idea of mental illness as a distinct, well-defined entity is a myth.


In this article, we'll challenge the conventional view of mental illness, drawing inspiration from Thomas Szasz's critique of the medicalisation of mental conditions and Bessel van der Kolk's The Body Keeps the Score to argue that the Adaptive Information Model offers a more holistic and accurate perspective on human psychological experiences.

The myth of mental illness

Thomas Szasz, a prominent critic of the mental health system, argued that 'mental illness' is a misleading and harmful concept. He contended that mental disorders should not be considered as medical illnesses but rather as problems in living.

Szasz asserted that labelling these issues as "illnesses" medicalises average human experiences, pathologising behaviour and feelings that may be better understood within a broader social and psychological context. His perspective resonates with the Adaptive Information Model, which emphasises the role of environmental factors, social interactions, and individual experiences in shaping psychological well-being.

The Adaptive Information Model posits that human beings constantly adapt to their environment, process information, and develop strategies to cope with life's challenges. This framework highlights the importance of understanding mental struggles as adaptive responses to adverse circumstances rather than as manifestations of inherent illness. By acknowledging that individuals are engaged in a dynamic adaptation process, we can better appreciate the complexity and variability of human experiences.

The Body Keeps the Score

Bessel van der Kolk's groundbreaking book, The Body Keeps the Score, delves into the profound impact of trauma on the mind and body. He argues that trauma can disrupt the adaptive information processing system, leading to a range of psychological and physiological symptoms. In this context, the concept of 'mental illness' becomes even more problematic, as it fails to capture the intricate connections between trauma, physical sensations, and emotional responses.

Van der Kolk's work supports the idea that mental health struggles are not merely the result of individual pathology but are often rooted in the body's responses to traumatic experiences. When we consider mental health from this perspective, it becomes clear that the traditional diagnostic categories of mental illness do not adequately account for the complexities of human suffering. Instead of focusing solely on psychiatric symptoms, we must also address the physical and somatic aspects of psychological distress.

The role of social and environmental factors

The Adaptive Information Model and The Body Keeps the Score both underscore the importance of social and environmental factors in shaping mental well-being.

Szasz argued that mental struggles are often a response to societal pressures and expectations. Similarly, van der Kolk emphasised that trauma is frequently linked to adverse social conditions, such as abuse, neglect, and violence. These perspectives challenge the notion that mental illness is solely an individual's problem and highlight the need to address broader social and environmental determinants of psychological distress.

By acknowledging the role of social and environmental factors, we can better understand why specific communities and populations are disproportionately affected by mental health challenges. This perspective prompts us to consider the structural inequalities, discrimination, and systemic issues that contribute to mental distress moving us away from stigmatising individuals as mentally ill and toward addressing the root causes of their suffering.

A holistic approach to mental well-being

The Adaptive Information Model and The Body Keeps the Score encourage us to adopt a more holistic approach to mental well-being. Rather than pathologising individuals, we should focus on enhancing their adaptive capacities and addressing the underlying factors contributing to their distress.

This approach involves a shift from the medical model of mental health, which relies heavily on psychiatric diagnosis and medication, to a more comprehensive understanding of psychological well-being. It emphasises the importance of therapeutic interventions incorporating a range of modalities, including talk therapy, somatic therapy, mindfulness practices, and social support.

Furthermore, it highlights the value of prevention and early intervention, recognising that mental struggles often emerge as a result of cumulative stressors and unresolved trauma. By addressing these issues proactively and providing individuals with the tools to adapt and heal, we can reduce the need for psychiatric diagnoses and medication.

The stigmatisation of mental illness

One of the most significant drawbacks of the concept of mental illness is the stigmatisation and discrimination that often accompany it. When individuals are labelled as mentally ill, they are frequently subjected to social exclusion, prejudice, and reduced opportunities. This stigma can be a barrier to seeking help and can exacerbate feelings of shame and isolation.

The Adaptive Information Model and The Body Keeps the Score offer a more compassionate and empathetic perspective. They emphasise that mental struggles are a natural response to adversity and trauma, making it crucial to create a supportive and non-judgmental environment for individuals to heal and recover.

In conclusion, the concept of mental illness as a distinct and static entity is increasingly being challenged by a more nuanced understanding of human psychology. Drawing inspiration from the Adaptive Information Model and The Body Keeps the Score, we have explored the idea that mental health challenges are better understood as adaptive responses to life's difficulties rather than illnesses. This perspective encourages us to address the root causes of psychological distress, consider the impact of trauma on the body, and acknowledge the role of social and environmental factors in shaping mental well-being.

By adopting a holistic approach to mental health and moving away from stigmatising labels, we can create a more compassionate and effective system of care. In doing so, we can better support individuals in their journey toward healing and adaptation, recognising their resilience and capacity for growth. Ultimately, this paradigm shift challenges the myth of mental illness and promotes a more accurate and humane understanding of human psychological experiences.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
Worthing, West Sussex, BN11 3LQ
Written by Robert Ormiston, RNMH MBACP
Worthing, West Sussex, BN11 3LQ

I'm a dedicated psychotherapist committed to improving mental health care. I introduced counselling models into traditional psychiatric settings, pursued a qualification in humanistic counselling, and actively contributed to community mental health units. I specialise in trauma therapy and believe in holistic well-being.

Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Trauma

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals