By Ian Chovil, Homewood Health Centre
The human brain is a frontier. It defines who we are and we don't often think of it as a physical component of our body. It can develop physical illnesses, something we don't talk about very much, because mental illness is highly stigmatized and frightening, albeit mostly because we don't know very much about it.
Most mental illnesses have biological and environmental causes. They tend to run in families but everyone faces a certain risk of developing a mental illness whether they have a family history or not. At the moment the most effective treatments are pharmaceutical. There are only four types of psychiatric medications: antidepressants, antipsychotics, mood stabilizers and drugs to reduce anxiety. With these medications most mental illnesses are quite treatable. About 80% of the people with depression treated with antidepressants have a complete recovery and may never have another depressive episode again. It is OK to seek medical attention for something which is disrupting your ability to function.
They say that one in ten men and one in four women will experience a depression at some point in their life. Symptoms include being unable to complete your daily routine, difficulty concentrating, withdrawal from human relationships, disruption in eating or sleeping patterns, irritability and, if left untreated, can lead to suicidal thoughts.
Between 60% and 100% of all suicides are caused by depression but depression is one of the most treatable mental illnesses. Someone actively planning their suicide may not stop to realize that they might have a clinical depression, a very treatable illness, and that they should seek medical attention. The result is that suicide is the second leading cause of death in the 15-39 age group, second only to automobile accidents. For whatever reasons many people don't know when to seek help.
Schizophrenia affects one out of a hundred people. The individual often experiences psychosis where they hear voices and have delusions of persecution or grandeur. One third of the homeless people in America are believed to have an untreated psychosis. Even though they are experiencing considerable reality distortion they have no awareness of their experience being caused by an illness. Schizophrenia is a complex condition and even though psychotic symptoms can generally be controlled with medication, early intervention and relapse prevention are essential to minimizing long term disability. The Nobel Prize winning mathematician John Nash suffers from schizophrenia, as we saw in the film A Beautiful Mind.
You may have heard of famous people with a mental illness known as bipolar disorder or manic depression. The Canadian actress Margot Kidder, Winston Churchill, Vincent Van Gogh, and Ernest Hemingway; all experienced slow uncontrollable swings between mania and depression. The self-destructive extremes can generally be controlled with medication, but like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder affects 1% of the population and is a life long condition for which there is no cure per se. It is generally less disabling than schizophrenia and usually begins in late adolescence with a serious depression. One of the classic signs of early mania is maxing out your credit cards with impulsive and unnecessary purchases.
Addiction is also a psychiatric condition that affects 10% of the population and it is inherited to some degree like other mental illnesses. Sometimes substance use is a means of self-medicating an underlying mental illness. Denial of an addiction is common, in spite of considerable personal losses. Males are more vulnerable to addiction in the same way that females are more vulnerable to depression.
Anxiety disorders, including panic attacks, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and post traumatic stress disorder are also fairly common, and characterized by extreme anxiety that has a dramatic impact on your behaviour. People start to avoid the situations that cause the extreme anxiety, and may end up never leaving their room.
Eating disorders are a kind of anxiety disorder that is fairly unique to our Western culture. It is more environmental than most disorders; something to do with the demands our society puts on people as they enter adulthood. Anorexia is the most persistent eating disorder and is distinct from bulimia in that there is continuous weight loss in anorexia that endangers the individual's health.
Awareness and Compassion
Mental illnesses are potentially life-threatening conditions that require prompt medical attention. As such, they should elicit compassion and support from us. We owe it to our family, friends, and the homeless people on the street who have lost all their human relationships, to be able to recognize mental illness. These illnesses can happen to anyone, including someone we love, and they might not realize they need medical attention.
Mental Illness Awareness Week occurs the first week of October. You can do something to destigmatize mental illness and ensure that people get the medical attention they can benefit so much from.