There is no doubt we need to be careful and cautious with labels. And comparing The Holocaust (as Peter Kinderman did) to anything other than another systematic and extensive act of genocide trivializes the former and reduces whatever criticism was intended of the target to a nasty school yard epithet. It is just plain thoughtless, stupid, and insensitive – as James Coyne pointed out.
But the concept of disease is just that, a concept. The word itself is a conjunction of “dis” and “ease”. The modern concept of disease has a two or three hundred-year history. And it is, after all, the very concept that allowed us to eradicate – well, almost eradicate – measles, mumps, polio, diphtheria, cholera, to treat some cancers, heart disease, pneumonia, and to improve the lives of those suffering from the conditions of bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia.
We have philosophical and scientific approaches to the concept of disease, and folk definitions. These may invoke evolution, constructivism, objectivism, adaptation, and concepts of “abnormal” and “normal”. And “normal” itself, can entail ideas of function, value, ideals, averages, and adaptation, as well as bell curves, actuarial tables, standard deviations.
The concept of disease does also imply a biological insult, difference, or malfunction of some sort, from its history of scientifically seeking cause and effect and the linkages between them, of leaving older explanatory concepts of magic, karma, miasma, destiny, god, evil, the devil and possession behind, to say nothing of the wholly unfounded notion that a “refrigerator mother” can cause autism or psychosis in her child.
We do have a recent history of overusing the disease concept in our modern world, of allowing flawed ideals and values (and commerce) to inform some of our definitions. But, in truth, it was not the overreaching concept of disease that caused damage, but the laws of the time that allowed abuse to follow. And the abuse, as is usually the case, was of power, not of semantics.
Today, on one side of the coin, we have the advocates for addictions and alcoholism petitioning for those afflictions to be called diseases, and on the other side, certain U.K. psychologists asking that all mental disorders be removed from under the rubric of disease. The former, I’m sure, because the concept of disease does absolve one of some moral responsibility for his or her behaviour, and the latter, I’m sure, because the concept of disease requires a physician to head the team of professional helpers.
But let us bring this down to basics:
We perceive someone to be “badly off.” He may or may not perceive himself to be badly off. We then ask ourselves if the disease concept will be of benefit in this situation. Does the idea of “illness” fit? Is he suffering? Is he causing others to suffer? Folk definitions may be applied at this point: “Call the cops.” “He needs a doctor.” “He seems to be okay, he’s not bothering anybody.” “He needs his medications adjusted.” “He’s just a little eccentric.” “That’s just Joe being Joe.” Or even that contradictory but common conclusion, “What a sick bastard.”
This person is brought to or finds his way to a medical professional. The medical professional asks herself similar questions: “Is he badly off?” “Does he perceive himself to be badly off?” “Is he suffering?” “Is he causing others to suffer?” And, then, “Does the concept of disease offer any help in this situation?”
And there is absolutely no doubt (how could there be any doubt today?), that for those behaviours and experiences, those symptoms and signs and suffering that constitute severe mental and emotional disorders, that fulfill the definitions of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, severe anxiety disorder, severe depression, the answer is YES, ABSOLUTELY.
And that ‘yes’ encompasses treatment today, and research tomorrow.