Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Mental Illness IS Physical Illness



I think it would be helpful to stop referring to depression and other mood disorders as “mental illness” because, although technically correct, that term has been stigmatized and it makes non-sufferers assume either that people suffering from mental illness are beyond help or that they just need to cheer up and/or try harder. Depression is a neurological disorder.

People who have depression do not just experience disordered emotional responses, they experience disordered perceptions and engage in disordered thinking. This is because their  brain processes are not functioning properly. Their neurons are not as they should be. Their hypothalamus, pituitary glands, and adrenal glands are being continuously triggered and their cortisol is not being inhibited; their amygdala (fear processing and fearful memory consolidation) may be enlarged as a result and their hippocampus (learning and memory) may be reduced in size. Their sleep patterns are abnormal and resemble that of someone who’s worked their entire lives 9-5 and now they’re being forced to work 3rd shift; their REM sleep comes on too soon and too often, they don’t experience deeper sleep stages as often as they should. Ongoing stress and sudden trauma trigger their symptoms, even after long periods of having recovered.

This is not about being weak or failing to be strong. This is not about “feeling sad.”

I think we need to put this to the fore every time this subject comes up. Depression is a disorder of the brain and body, not a psychological set-back or character flaw. Please be compassionate of others’ or your own suffering because it is real and deserves to be legitimized and treated. 
-          Colleen A. Falconer

I’ve posted this quote for two reasons.

First, because this is an excellent description of just how depression (and many other mood disorders) is truly a biological illness, not something that’s “all in the head.” There are true physical differences in the brain, and these differences need to be medically treated. Because this description is so clear, it needs to be shared as widely. This platform is the best one I have to get the message out to as many people as possible, regardless of whether or not it is on topic.

And second, because it IS on topic. We humans are not unique or somehow special in suffering from the brain-based neurological disorders that we currently call “mental illness.” While it is true that diagnosing mood disorders in animals is tricky at best because animals can’t tell us what’s going on in their heads (which is why I prefer to use a veterinary behaviorist whenever possible), we can observe behaviors that suggest conditions like anxiety, compulsions, stress disorders, etc. In addition, there is no reason to believe that other mammals, whose brains look so very much like our own, couldn’t have abnormal neurons or brain structures associated with these diseases.

I’m not advocating for the over-medication of society, human or animal. I am advocating for appropriate treatment. Just as other medical problems can be treated with a multi-pronged approach (for example, diabetes often requires changes in diet and exercise in addition to medication), human “mental illness” can be treated through a variety of approaches, as can “behavior problems” in animals. But appropriate treatment can and does include medication, and just because it has been inappropriately prescribed in some cases does not mean that it’s inappropriate in all cases.

Mental illnesses are physical illnesses, and having one can be painful and affect one’s quality of life. These illnesses are often chronic conditions that require lifelong monitoring and maintenance; they aren’t something one just “gets over.” Maybe someday we will find a cure, but in the meantime, we are fortunate to live in a time when these illnesses can be treated. Please, do not allow yourself or your loved one to suffer needlessly. 


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