Understanding Mental Illness as a Chemical Imbalance
What is Mental Illness?
What do you think of when you hear the term "mental illness"? Do you think of the homeless man on the side of the road talking to himself with no place to go? Do you think of the "crazy" woman locked up in a psychiatric hospital with little chance for recovery? Do you think of the child born with little brain function, the person rocking back and forth with no regard for anyone around him, or the psychopath on a killing spree? If so, you're not alone. There are so many misconceptions about "mental illness". Part of my job as a therapist has been to assess patients in a local emergency room when a psychiatric emergency is considered by the attending physician. When I speak with the patient, I often hear, "I don't need counseling because I'm not crazy", or "My doctor suggested medication, but I'm not taking it because I'm not crazy", or even, "I'm not going to a psychiatric hospital because that's the looney bin". This misconception often leads to lack of an appropriate diagnosis, which leads to lack of appropriate treatment, which leads to years of confusion and turmoil for the patient.
Mental illness is often just that, an illness in the brain. I like to use the term "mental health concern" instead because it tends to sound less devastating. So what does this mean? Well, it means that much of the time, a person with a mental health condition is very similar to a person with a heart condition, a thyroid condition, or a kidney condition. This person has a chemical imbalance in their brain that needs to be corrected to become "normal" once again. Putting it another way, just as a person would take medication (Synthroid or something similar) to control a thyroid condition, or take insulin to control diabetes, a person with a mental health condition often needs medication to regulate the chemicals in their brain to control emotional or sometimes physical symptoms. Medication can help a person with any type of mental health concern lead a very normal life.
Let's take a look at some common mental health diagnoses.
Probably the most common mental health condition is depression. Approximately 1 in 10 people suffer from some level of depression, but some statistics show that about 54% of people feel that depression is a personal weakness. 41% of depressed women are too embarrassed to seek help, and about 80% of depressed people are not seeking treatment. However, depression is a very treatable condition, and about 80-90 percent of depressed people can experience relief.
In my opinion, there are two types of depression, situational depression and chemical depression. Situational depression occurs when a person goes through a situation in his or her life that causes significant pain or distress such as divorce, major health issue, loss of loved one, job loss, or the like. People dealing with situational depression may be able to deal with their emotional state by turning to friends, pastors, or individual counseling for assistance, and medication may not be necessary. An antidepressant may be prescribed short term to help the person be able to more readily deal with thier issues. On the other hand, chemical depression occurs when a person is predisposed to depression and often a person feels down or depressed with no known reason. Chemicals such as seratonin and dopamine in the brain are not regulated. Medication, an antidepressant such as a selective seratonin reuptake inhibitor (Prozac, Paxil, Lexapro, Zoloft) may be prescribed to regulate the chemicals.
Another mental health disorder, Bipolar Disorder, is characterized by periods of severe depression and periods of mania. People with this disorder often engage in reckless behavior, appear irritable, have little need for sleep, have little self control, racing thoughts, and many other concerning behaviors during manic periods. Bipolar Disorder appears to be genetic, and appears to have chemical causes (abnormal seratonin levels). Mood stabilizer medication can drastically improve symptoms and enable a person suffering with Bipolar Disorder to lead a quite normal life. I have a very good friend who is a teacher in an elementary school. She was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder over 10 years ago. It took years for a psychiatrist to find the right combination of medication for her, but for the last 7 years or so, she has been more than capable of teaching young children to read, add, subtract, and love school. She is not mentally ill, she has a mental health condition that is being treated successfully.
Other mental health diagnoses such as schizophrenia, ADHD, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder could also be considered and discussed here.
Famous People with Mental Health Conditions
We often hear of various celebrities suffering from mental illness such as Brittany Spears, but did you realize the following also battled mental health conditions:
John Quincy Adams-- President-- Clinical Depression
Buzz Aldrin-- Astronaut-- Clinical Depression
Ludwig van Beethovan-- Composer-- Bipolar Disorder
Drew Carrey Comedian-- Clinical-- Depression
Winston Churchill-- British Prime Minister-- Bipolar Disorder, Dyslexia
Dick Clark-- TV Personality-- Clinical Depression
Harrison Ford --Actor-- Clinical Depression
Billy Joel-- Singer --Clinical Depression
Margot Kidder --Actress --Bipolar Disorder
Howie Mandel --Comedian --Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
J.P. Morgan --Financier-- Clinical Depression
Donny Osmond-- Singer --Clinical Depression, Social phobia
Marie Osmond --Singer--- Post Partum Depression
Charley Pell-- Former UF football coach-- Clinical Depression
Daryll Strawberry --Baseball Player-- Clinical Depression
Mike Wallace --Journalist --Clinical Depression
Robin Williams-- Actor/Comedian-- Clinical Depression
And there are so many others.
There should not be a stigma to mental health conditions. Because of the stigma, so many people who experience symptoms of various mental health issues do not seek treatment, and therefore live with their conditions, but could have a much better quality of life. It seems so much more palatable to seek treatment for a thyroid condition, heart condition, or diabetes than it is to seek treatment for a mental health condition, but the stigma needs to be removed and more people need to understand that a "mental illness" is just that, an "illness" that needs medical attention the same as any other "illness".