Compassionate Love Blog: Displaying compassion for those who struggle with mental illness (c)2016 Nancy Virden, Always the Fight Ministry
In past Western society, symptoms of mental illness were seen as behavioral choices, bad attitudes, or at least repulsive deficiencies. We used to institutionalize struggling people because loved ones did not know what else to do. In worst case scenarios patients were used as lab rats, or sterilized against their will. Dark, rubber-walled isolation chambers were thought “safe” places where a person who was symptomatic could unwind.
Our understanding has grown and continues to do so. We’ve learned that isolation is the worst possible response to mental illness, and in fact, can exacerbate symptoms. We’ve abolished the formal inhumane treatment, but have instead relegated those with mental illness to combinations of homelessness, ridicule, poverty, and blame. Access to Mental Health services is often unavailable if one does not have money, lives in a rural community, or simply cannot function due to the illness.
I believe the reason for the wide disparity between what is accepted as “normal” healthcare and mental healthcare is blame. We may say the politically correct phrases and nod our heads in sympathy sometimes, but in many minds the concept of mental illness is still an excuse for avoiding responsibility.
The frontal cortex (the part of our brain “responsible for planning and carrying out meaningful goals and activities … the center for thinking, foresight, judgment,integration of thought and perception, reality testing, initiative, and perseverance”*) has been studied long-term and patterns have been found showing tissue loss, depletion of cells, less connecting fibers, larger amounts of some types of cells, and other structural changes in people with a variety of mental illnesses. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Schizophrenia, Bipolar Affective Disorder (BPAD), and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) are some of these illnesses. In fact, with BPAD and MDD, post-mortem studies discovered that 40-90% of the cells necessary for nourishing and supporting neurons in the brain, were gone.
Brain disorders are complex, with many different genes and gene mutations contributing. The same is true of cancer, and diabetes, for example. And like cancer and diabetes, a genetic factor in mental illnesses is known. Rates of risk for mental illness are affected by how many relatives and which ones share the same diagnosis. Studies of identical twins have helped us to explore genetic influences on mental illness.
While there appears to be a genetic predisposition, not all cases have a family history of the disease. Researchers call environmental factors the “second hit.”* We know that viral infections and a pregnant mother’s weak immune system greatly raises the risk of her child having a mental illness. Brain injuries in utero or early childhood are linked to Schizophrenia.
When I was twenty-seven, I was diagnosed with a Giant brain aneurism. I was told it was likely a brain injury at some point in my life including perhaps in utero. There was no sign of a problem until I was a teenager, and symptoms gradually worsened over at least thirteen years. In a similar way, BPAD and Schizophrenia can be present and unnoticed. They are considered organic brain diseases stemming from brain injury, and reach critical stage when a person’s central nervous system matures. This is why symptoms tend to appear in late adolescence and early adulthood.
This is why medications can help. Unlike for a brain aneurism, there is no quick-fix such as I experienced with surgery. As of now there is no known medical “cure” for mental illness. The chances of finding a more normal and satisfactory life highly increase with medical treatment.
The next part in this series will address more “second hits” such as family life, experiences, and emotions.
Today’s Helpful Word
Psalm 7:10 (NIV)
“My shield is God Most High, who saves the upright in heart.”
-King David who struggled with depressive episodes
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NOTE: I am not a doctor or mental health professional. I speak only from personal experiences with and observations of mental illness. In no way is this website intended to substitute for professional mental health care.
If you are struggling emotionally today or feeling suicidal, or concerned about someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Hope and help is yours.
*National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) Peer-to-Peer Recovery Education Program