Journal of Integrative and Complementary Medicine
School of Medicine
Disease and health are commonly thought of as distinct opposites. We propose a different view in which both may be seen to be facets of healthy functioning, each necessary for the other, each giving rise to the other. Thus, disease may be thought of as a manifestation of health. It is the healthy response of an organism striving to maintain physical, psychologic, and spiritual equilibrium. Disease is not necessarily to be avoided, blocked, or suppressed. Rather, it should be understood to be a process of transformation. The process should therefore be facilitated because it is an integral part of the dynamic equilibrium that we ordinarily think of as health. In many cases, perhaps all, people get ill because there is something going 'wrong' in their lives. This could occur in a whole range of ways - relationships, environment, food, or job. Our view, however, is that disease is a meaningful state that can inform health workers how to help patients to heal themselves. In this way, instead of being meaningless, people's problems become diseases of meaning, enabling people to see that things are not necessarily 'going wrong' but are, in fact, helping them become stronger, to live more fully and with more understanding. Seen from this perspective, depression; cancer; heart disease; neurodegenerative and autoimmune disease; dementia; and conditions such as community violence, genocide, and the problem of environmental devastation are 'diseases of meaning.' World Health Organization forecasts make it clear that diseases of meaning will continue well into the next millennium to be the major cause of suffering and death worldwide. To deal with them, the world needs to reformulate the biomolecular paradigm that has been exploited in the last two centuries. It does not address the reasons why these diseases arise, attending mainly to their molecular consequences. A paradigm that includes the importance of meaning must now be given top priority. The concept that diseases are a manifestation of health - a call to a different relationship with ourselves and our environment, both animate and inanimate - is in itself a different approach. Programs for care and education based upon it would have immediate application in medicine, industry, education and ecology. We believe that this model would have far-reaching consequences for the understanding, treatment, and prevention of diseases and behaviors that lead to violence and environmental destruction.
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Whitehouse, Peter J., "Diseases of Meaning, Manifestations of Health, and Metaphor" (1999). Faculty Scholarship. 54.