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Mental Illness or Brain Disorder?

Human head with brain vector sketch icon isolated on background.Why is it that the idea of “mental illness” is so much scarier to many people than any other illness? We talk freely about cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, yet whisper about Bipolar Disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Of course the media portrayal of these illnesses doesn’t help, but surely there must be more to it than that.

While the “physical illnesses” mentioned above are seen as diseases that happen to us, the “mental illnesses” are perceived as us. We get heart disease, but we are bipolar. We get cancer, but we are obsessive-compulsive. Heart disease and cancer are separate from us. Bipolar Disorder and OCD are us. Indeed, many people mistakenly believe that those with “mental illnesses” typically have no insight or understanding as to what is going on with them.

Why do we think this way? I believe it’s because “mental illnesses” are illnesses of the brain. And we are our brains, right?

Well, no. We are not our brains. Our brains, like our livers, kidneys, and hearts, are organs in our body. And just like any other organ, they can sometimes malfunction, become distressed or even diseased. Indeed, because the brain is the most complex organ in the human body, there are many different things that can go wrong with it.

Much research has been done, and it is now widely accepted that, due to neuroplasticity, our brains can adapt and change. They can actually be retrained and rewired. Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, a world-renowned expert in neuroplasticity and the author of Brain Lock, talks about studies he conducted in the mid 1980’s:

“It seemed worth investigating whether learning to observe your sensations and thoughts with the calm clarity of an external witness could strengthen the capacity to resist the insistent thoughts of OCD.”

While Dr. Schwartz’s research focused specifically on mindfulness as a tool to deal with obsessive-compulsive disorder, the brain can be rewired in other ways as well. However, the ultimate conclusion from his well-conducted studies on mindfulness and the brain is extremely interesting: “The mind can change the brain.”

To me, this is clear evidence that our brains are not who we are. They are an organ in our bodies that to some extent at least, can be trained. If you are annoyed by all the quotation marks I use in this post surrounding “physical illness” and “mental illness,” now is as good a time as any to announce I do not plan on distinguishing illnesses in this way anymore. Because Bipolar Disorder, depression, OCD, schizophrenia, and other so-called “mental illnesses” are illnesses of the brain, which is an organ in our body, I believe they are as much physical illnesses as are diseases of any other organ.

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But if we are not our brains, then who are we? A great question with, I’m guessing, many answers. We are our hearts, our minds, our spirits, our souls. But never are we our illnesses, no matter which organ they happen to arise from.

Mental Illness or Brain Disorder?

Janet Singer

Janet Singer’s son Dan suffered from OCD so severe that he could not even eat. After navigating through a disorienting maze of treatments and programs, Dan made a triumphant recovery. Janet has become an advocate for OCD awareness and wants everyone to know that OCD, no matter how severe, is treatable. There is so much hope for those with this disorder. Janet, who uses a pseudonym to protect her son’s privacy, is the author of Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery, published in January 2015 by Rowman & Littlefield. Her own blog,, has reached readers in 167 countries. She is married with three children and resides in New England.

APA Reference
Singer, J. (2018). Mental Illness or Brain Disorder?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 24 Mar 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.