By Merritt Juliano
August 26, 2015
Why are we so uncomfortable when it comes to mental health and illness? We're so uncomfortable, we like to isolate ourselves from the subject. We go so far as to siphon off "mental health" from other health issues by creating a separate category for it rather than capturing it under the "health" umbrella. More often than not, people avoid openly discussing mental health and some even go so far as to deny the existence of issues related to it. Despite a number of campaigns designed to bring more awareness to mental health issues, a strong stigma still exists in the United States. For instance, a large percentage of the prison population suffers from mental illness. What does this tell us? For one, it's clear that we've simply decided to isolate the suffering in prisons, rather than treat their underlying mental illness. But why? The brain is an organ like other organs in the body. When something goes wrong with the biological system of our brain, those suffering should be able to seek help without feeling ashamed. We should all feel empowered to seek help when we don't feel well, no matter the origin of our pain.
Unfortunately, a discriminatory system still awaits those who attempt to seek services. Some health insurance companies separate mental health services from other types of medical services, potentially making it more difficult for the insured to receive adequate mental health services. Patients can be limited to a number of inpatient and outpatient mental health services or denied services altogether. Aside from the economic drawbacks of stigmatization, failure to properly treat mental illness carries a heavy human toll. Silencing mental health issues serves as a barrier to recovery. Talking openly and sharing adverse experiences with others can increase resilience and aid in efforts to recover from illness. Like cancer survivors who find hope and strength in sharing their experiences, those suffering from mental health issues can find hope and strength in doing the same with others who have experienced mental illness.
For a long time, we didn't understand how the brain worked. Although we still have more to learn, we do have the technology to understand some very important mechanisms. Though it's not the only cause, we know that depression can be associated with low levels of the brain chemical serotonin, similar to how low levels of insulin can be associated with diabetes. Whether the depression stems from biological or environmental conditions, the mechanics of the brain remain the same. Advances in science and approach have also demonstrated that a patient's health issues often intersect with one other. For example, many suffering from a thyroid disorder -- a traditional physiological health issue -- can also suffer from attendant depression due to hormonal changes that affect the brain. In our country, we would never stigmatize the cause, but we would the effect.
We also know that brain chemistry is always changing, particularly in response to stress. We all live with some level of stress on a spectrum, and while our physical responses to stress varies from person to person, we know that higher levels of stress can lead to changes in brain chemistry that can lead to a variety of mental health issues: anxiety and depression, to name a few. Similar to how our cardiac and circulatory system can become stressed from eating too much fat or bad cholesterol, our brain can become stressed from trauma and other adverse biological and environmental conditions.
What can we do to change false perceptions around mental health and mental illness? We can start by integrating mental health into the broader category of health, rather than isolating it as "different." A person suffering from an illness, such as depression, is no less deserving of services (or stigmatization) than a person suffering from diabetes.
In terms of changing false perceptions about mental health, we also need to make it more acceptable for people to seek mental health services. We praise and, in fact, incentivize preventative care for children, adults and our seniors, such as the annual visit to a GP for a "physical." Why not do the same for efforts to keep the brain healthy? We also need to start talking openly about mental health the way we talk about other health issues. Join the conversation.