Mental well-being: Body autonomy is also a mental health problem | Lifestyles


Nicole Ball

Bodily autonomy is essential to a person’s safety, health and well-being.

The human brain/body reacts to danger signals by activating its autonomous flight/fight/freeze response system. A very important fact to learn is that this system does not differentiate between potential or perceived danger and actual immediate danger. This is adaptive and can help save your life, but there is a physiological cost every time the autonomic nervous system is activated and your body needs time to recover and reset afterwards. If that recovery doesn’t happen, the result is “burnout,” a host of life-threatening physical, emotional, and mental symptoms that cost billions of dollars in healthcare costs and lost productivity.

Now imagine that someone else (a neighbor, boss, friend, or relative), or your local, state, or federal government decides to direct what you do with your body. Doesn’t that sound like a major signal of danger or threat? And boom, self-combat, flight, freeze response activated.

“Body autonomy” refers to your ability to control and decide what can and cannot happen with your body. This philosophical concept appears throughout recorded history and you can quickly see how it applies in your own life if you stop and think for several moments.

Imagine you are sitting in a hospital visiting with your gravely ill relative. Unrelated to caring for a member of your family, a nurse rushes over and tells you, “someone in the ER needs blood and anyone in this hospital with type X blood needs to come with me and donate blood.” “. While some people may be willing to donate blood for the injured person, others will not. What if the request is to provide a kidney or other life-saving organ to an unknown patient? Other scenarios could include a government ordering you to be tattooed with an ID number or the prison system removing reproductive organs from inmates. These are all real historical examples.

These scenarios are perhaps difficult to imagine. I hope so. The right to bodily autonomy is the foundation of modern medical ethics. This right is also the foundation of many other national and international human rights. The United States Constitution deals with the protection of individual liberty against abuse by a government. The United Nations has issued a Universal Declaration of Human Rights in which Article 3 states that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”. The Christian God prioritized “free will” for humans in our creation recorded in Eden.

In light of the value we place on freedom, and given the costs associated with a repeatedly activated nervous system, how can laws that limit or control bodily autonomy be justified? How do we allow laws that punish or prevent people from exercising their basic freedom over their bodies? How can we allow laws that force a person with a uterus to face the deadly risk of childbirth and the long-term responsibility of another person?

My perception is that the United States of America is founded on a fundamental value of freedom. How can this be reconciled with the control of citizen bodies? How do you reconcile this with the cost of this control for the mental health of citizens? What about their physical health, financial situation, job security and general well-being? If you don’t have bodily autonomy, do you even have freedom at all?

Nicole Ball is a professor of social work at Ferris State University, clinical mental health therapist, and owner of Mental Wellness Counseling at TC.

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