Mental health articles

OF mental health care and mentally ill

What is holistic health

The roots of the English word for health, in Old English and Old High German, link it to wholeness and healing: ‘etymologically speaking … to be healthy is to be whole or holy, which clearly embraces both spiritual and physical features rather than merely the latter’. The grammar of health, then, is one that implies a holistic or integrative structure to our health and to our understanding of health. Thus, health may be taken as referring to mind (including thoughts, beliefs and feelings), body (including behaviour), and spirit. This common-sense wisdom has prevailed for most of human history; Marks argues that it can be traced to the earliest period of history around 10,000 .

It is only the comparatively recent Cartesian dualism of the seventeenth century that had the effect (if not the intention) to conceptualize a split between the mind and the body, a split which ultimately gave rise and succour to the practice of referring to whole, if ill, person as ‘the appendix in Bed 4’. It is a short step from Bed 4 to the back ward and to being referred to and, perhaps more perniciously, referring to oneself – as ‘the schizophrenic’, as if that is all one is. This reductionism of person to symptom and/or behaviour is not only limited and limiting, it is inaccurate and, ultimately, anti-human. A holistic approach to the person, which ‘embraces and affirms complexity, inclusion and diversity and resists reductionism’, also locates the person/organism within their environment. Half a century ago, Lewin (1952) argued that it was impossible to view a person except in the context of their environment or ‘environmental field’ (hence field theory)– and, of course, the viewer/researcher/doctor/nurse/etc. is also a part of this interactional field: ‘only the interplay of organism and environment … constitutes the psychological situation, not the organism and environment taken separately’. In relation to mental health promotion this view is reflected in the notion of mental health as requiring both ‘individual resiliance’ and ‘supportive environments’ – a notion which proposes a necessary balance in focus between individual and environment, and which offers a challenge to promote the mental health both of individuals (at intrapsychic and interpersonal levels) and of environments (workplace, organization, institution, culture), often through hearts and minds as well as policies and procedures.

This interactional view focuses our attention on the health (or otherwise) not only of the subject or figure but also of the other figures in the field and of the environment itself. Thus the health of the doctor and nurse and whether the general practice or hospital is a healthy environment, or similarly the health of the child and the school, become as much the subject for concern and critical enquiry as the health and illness of the patient. Lest holism leads us to some spurious unity, the Zen Buddhist Master, Shunryu Suzuki in the spirit of ‘no dualism’ offers a reminder of the complexity – and simplicity of the relationship between mind and body: ‘our body and mind are not two, and not one. If you think your body and mind are two, that is wrong; if you think they are one, that is also wrong. Our body and mind are both two and one’. In this sense holistic expansions of the mind/body duality (as above) are but stepping stones to a postmodernist commentary (meta-analysis or meta-text) on health and context, biology and culture.

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