Those with mental health disorders are no more dangerous to society than those without mental health disorders. Overcoming such stigmas, often conveyed through the media, is another challenge that such individuals have to struggle with.
We have all experienced days when we are feeling down and just want to stay in bed. This sadness we all experience is often confused with mental illness, which is very different from feeling “blue.” Mental illness, as defined by the National Institute of Health, is a health disorder that affects a person’s thinking, feelings, or behavior and causes difficulty in everyday functioning.
Mental health is different than physical health, but they do not work alone. Mental health severely impacts physical health. Mental disorders are often associated with chronic physical illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes, and often increase the risk of physical injury. When a person is not mentally stable, their physical health begins to dwindle as well. Therefore, mental health malfunctions are at the center of our physical health and overall wellbeing.
While there have previously been numerous false preconceptions as to what mental illness stems from, we know today that mental disorders are brain disorders. Therefore, the biological process that makes a brain function is altered when a person has a mental illness.
Scientists use a variety of brain imaging techniques to investigate brain structure and function. These brain imaging techniques help to deepen scientists’ understanding of mental illness and the brain, but they are not used to diagnose mental illness. Mental illness is diagnosed by the set of symptoms that a person exhibits, such as changes in behavior, personality, mood, or sleep.
The basic functional unit of the brain is the neuron. Neurons communicate with other neurons in the form of an electrical impulse that travels down the axon of a neuron and stimulates the release of neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters then cross a microscopic gap between neurons, called the synapse, and either excite or inhibit an electrical impulse in the receiving neuron, carrying the message throughout the brain. Scientists understand that mental illness results from problems with neurotransmission in the brain. For example, an undersupply of the neurotransmitter serotonin is associated with depression. This finding led to the development of certain medications to treat this disorder. Many anti-depressant medications block the reuptake of serotonin, increasing the amount in the synaptic gap. This offers more serotonin neurotransmitter molecules to bind onto the receiving neuron.
Phillip J. Cowen, Professor of Psychopharmacology in the Department of Psychiatry at Oxford University, and Michael Browning, MRC Clinician Scientist Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford, write about serotonin and antidepressant action in their article for the World Psychiatric Association: “More pertinent in this respect are neuropsychological studies which show that, in both healthy participants and depressed patients, administration of SSRIs [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors] leads to positive shifts in the way the brain appraises emotionally-balanced information.”
It is also important to note that not all brain disorders are considered mental illnesses. Disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis are considered neurological diseases instead of mental illnesses.
While mental disorders affect about 20 percent of American adults, mental disorders are also very common among adolescents. According to the American Psychiatric Association, fifty percent of mental illnesses begin by the age of 14. The National Mental Health Association reports that an estimated two-thirds of all young people with mental health problems are not receiving the help they need. About 12 million people under the age of 18 in America have mental disorders, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death, and among adolescents and young adults, it is responsible for more deaths than the combination of cancer, heart disease, congenital anomalies, respiratory disease, influenza, pneumonia, stroke, meningitis, septicemia, HIV, diabetes, anemia, and kidney and liver disease. Adolescents today are strongly affected by mental illness, and there has been recent increases in suicides among adolescents as a result.
One way to help is by implementing mental health education in our schools. This provides direct help for those who are most impacted by mental health. Promoting mental health education in schools provides on-site help for both students and teachers who need it, and it also spreads awareness.
According to Nancy Barille, a National Board Certified teacher in Boston who holds a B.A. in behavioral science and a Master’s in Education, “teachers and students should be provided with ways to recognize signs of developing mental health problems, and there should be opportunities around the awareness and management of mental health crises, including the risk of suicide or self-harm.”
Students (and teachers) empowered with knowledge about mental illness can seek out the help they need and offer help to those who need it. Other self-help methods to achieve overall wellness includes talking to trusted adults, meditation, exercise, and practicing mindfulness.
Writer Emmie Pombo from the National Alliance on Mental Illness Advocate magazine, “you cannot change the fact that you have a mental illness, so any time you spend trying to ‘get rid of it’ or pretend it doesn’t exist is only draining you of valuable energy.”
Self-help methods can be a step toward treating your condition. These include emotional awareness, mental reframing, and opposite-to-emotion thinking.
Getting more serious help through prescribed medication from doctors or psychiatrists, or receiving help from therapists are also ways that people cope with chronic mental illness.
Understanding the human brain and the biological nature of mental disorders will help avoid stigmas associated with mental illness. Recognizing mental health as essential to physical health will also help to promote overall well-being. Knowing the appropriate steps to take when you or someone you know is affected by mental illness is essential for attaining the right help. If you think someone you know might have a serious mental illness, talk to a teacher or trusted adult, or encourage them to see a physician.
Being there for each other and helping one another is one of the only ways to ensure effective treatment of mental illness.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255