Mental Wellness: Bodily autonomy is also a mental health issue | Lifestyles

Mental Wellness: Bodily autonomy is also a mental health issue |  Lifestyles


Nicole Ball

Bodily autonomy is essential to a person’s safety, health and wellbeing.


The human brain/body responds to signals of danger by activating its autonomic 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 each time the autonomic nervous system is activated and your body needs time to recover and reset afterwards. If this recovery does not happen the result is “burnout,” a host of deleterious physical, emotional, and mental symptoms which costs billions of dollars in health care spending and lost productivity.

Now, imagine that someone else (a neighbor, boss, friend, or parent), or your local, state, or federal government, decides that they get to direct what you do with your body. Does that not seem like a major signal of danger or threat? And boom, autonomous fight, flight, freeze response activated.

“Bodily 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 this applies within your own life if you stop and think for several moments.

Imagine that you are sitting in a hospital visiting with your severely sick parent. Unrelated to your family member’s care, a nurse rushes in and he tells you, “a person in the emergency room needs blood and every person in this hospital with type X blood must come with me and give blood.” While some people may be willing to volunteer their blood for the injured person, some will not. What if the demand is to provide a kidney, or other life saving organ, for the unknown patient? Other scenarios could include a government ordering that you be tattooed with an identification number or a prison system removing the reproductive organs of inmates. These are all real historical examples.

Perhaps those scenarios are challenging to imagine. I certainly hope so. A 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 US Constitution addresses the protection of individual liberty against the abuse of a government. The United Nations published a Universal Declaration of Human Rights in which Article 3 states “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” The Christian God prioritized “free will” for humans upon our reported creation in Eden.

In light of how much value we place on freedom, and considering the costs associated with a repeatedly activated nervous system, how do we justify laws that limit or control bodily autonomy? How do we allow laws that either punish or prevent people from acting on their fundamental freedom over their body? How can we allow laws that force a person with a uterus to face the mortal risk of childbirth and long-term responsibility for another person?

My perception is that the United States of America is founded upon a bedrock value of freedom. How do you reconcile this with control of the citizens’ bodies? How do you reconcile this with the cost of that control to the citizen’s mental health? What about their physical health, financial status, job security, and overall well-being? If you do not have bodily autonomy do you even have freedom at all?

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

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