It is very common for people to have mental health concerns from time to time. A mental health concern becomes mental illness when the intensity of the symptoms causes significant distress and/or it has an impact on daily activities and social interactions.
Good mental health means being generally able to think, feel and react, while poor mental health is characterised by a certain level of difficulty in those areas.
Mental illness is a broad term that refers to a wide range of medical conditions involving changes in thinking, emotion and/or behaviour.
The ICD 10 and the DSM V are the two manuals that are used by professionals to define and classify mental disorders in a territory such as Psychiatry where there are no blood tests, no imaging investigations or anatomical pathology results to support diagnoses.
The main mental health conditions are: Neurodevelopmental Disorders; Anxiety Disorders, including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; Mood Disorders; Psychotic Disorders; Trauma related Disorders; Eating Disorders; Personality Disorders; Substance related Disorders; and Neurocognitive Disorders.
The distinction between mental health and physical health sometimes leads to an erroneous belief that mental health is not “a real illness” and can be controlled with “the power of the mind”. In all honesty, I don’t think we would ever ask someone who suffers from Hypertension (high blood pressure) to stop taking Antihypertensive medications but instead to “think positive and try to get better”. We would not encourage someone who suffers from Diabetes to not take Insulin but to “be strong and cope with it”. We would not blame a person who broke his/her leg for not using that leg to walk. Wisely, I’m pretty certain we would not tell any of those people phrases such as “it is all in your mind. It depends on you and what you want to do with your life. Get over it”.
On the other side, when a person is depressed or experiences other types of psychiatric conditions, sometimes we are erroneously brought to think that the person can resolve the condition if he/she wants to. Experiencing psychiatric symptoms is often scary, confusing and frightening. People may feel anxious and preoccupied most of the time, or they may experience sudden and intense attacks of fear. They may find themself ruminating about things, not being able to stop thinking, and having to perform specific actions in order to feel in control. They may experience mood swings, low mood, poor energy or an inexplicable feeling of wellbeing, strength, and elevated mood. They may have unusual thoughts or experiences. Also sleep and appetite may be affected.
Being mentally unwell may be considered a sign of weakness or shame. It may be considered a decision rather than a condition. Unfortunately, social media and the Internet often reinforce these negative messages. This can easily lead to a delay in seeking help, which is likely to increase the level of distress and sense of isolation that a person is already experiencing. People cannot recover from anxiety by just staying calm. They cannot recover from depression by being positive. They cannot recover from psychosis by deciding to stop hearing voices and being paranoid. They cannot recover from anorexia nervosa by just eating more. If mental illnesses were that simple no one would ever struggle in the first place.
Probably the most poisoning and dangerous elements in our society are ignorance and people that talk about things that they don’t really know. Prejudice, stigma, and erroneous judgments are possible consequences of such a dysfunctional attitude.
I don’t want to diverge from the main topic of this post. I don’t even believe that in this context it is useful to speculate on the reasons why human beings think they can control their brain.
I would rather like to point out that from an anatomical and physiological point of view, our brain is probably the most complicated organ of the entire human body. Pathological alterations of the brain are the cause of mental illnesses. Therefore, in order to treat psychiatric conditions a medical approach is an essential requirement and psychotropic medications are often necessary.
In reality, mental health problems are very common and can be treated. The most important step to take is to recognise we need help and/or to trust people that encourage us to seek support from a specialist.
Image by Nicoletta Ceccoli