This week is National Mental Health Week in Canada, and in honor of it I wanted to do my part to raise awareness about Mental Health.
Mental health is something we don’t talk about enough. Kind of like religion, politics and our sex lives, mental health is treated as a taboo topic by most. But it shouldn’t be.
As people we have physical bodies, and at any point in time our physical body can be in different states of health. Usually we take our bodies for granted. They do what we tell them to. They work. It’s only when they stop working correctly (which could be due to injury, disease or just regular wear and tear) that we really think of the “health” of our bodies.
Mental health is similar, and it affects ALL of us. You, me, and all the people we interact with on a day to day basis. Just as your body has a general level of health even when you aren’t suffering an injury, we all have a state of mental health. As described by the Canadian Mental Health Association, mental health is:
It’s a state of well-being in which you realize your own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work and study productively and are able to make a contribution to your family and community.
Just as our bodies are susceptible to illnesses, we are all susceptible to mental illnesses. Today I hope to shed some myths, and provide at least a bit of understanding about the grouping of conditions that are commonly referred to as mental illness.
Mental Health is a sensitive topic, and I’m not a doctor. I’m just a regular guy who wanted to understand mental health a bit better. What is here is based on “my” understanding, but I believe/hope it’s accurate.
The Stigma of Mental Illness
I mentioned above that mental health is treated as a taboo subject. Mental health and illness is very poorly understood, and I think this lack of understanding leads to considerable stigma.
It used to be that when I heard the term mental illness, the first things that came to mind was the word “crazy”, or the idea that someone has “snapped”. I pictured straight-jackets, and people who talk to themselves or go on random shooting sprees. But most mental illness isn’t like that.
What most people don’t understand is that mental illness occurs on a spectrum. It is a generic term used to categorize a number of different issues, such as mood disorders, depression and bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, personality disorders, eating disorders and even dementia. All of these fall under the umbrella of “Mental Illness”. And like any other disorder or condition, there are varying degrees of severity for each of them.
The main commonality between them is that they are:
Disturbances in cognition and emotional responsiveness resulting in problems in thinking and behavior.
When most people hear about mental illness in the news, they are hearing about the cases that are on the extreme end of the spectrum (crazy with a capital “C”). It’s no wonder people don’t even want to hear the term “mental illness” applied to themselves or someone they love. We don’t understand it.
Hearing the term mental illness used to describe someone you care about and then making the mental jump to “they’re crazy” is like thinking that because someone played “the tree” in a primary school Christmas concert they are destined for a career in Hollywood. Or like saying because I play basketball I’m like Michael Jordan.
Just as Michael Jordan was not an average example of a basketball player, the people who hit the news are by no means representative of mental illness.
It may be more accurate to say that having a mental illness means the person affected likely has some issues with their coping mechanisms, which may or may not be significant in their day to day life.
Most people with mental illnesses are able to live regular lives. I have a few buddies who are “affected” by mental illness. And while they acknowledge that their issues affect them, they are regular people just like anyone else. In fact I hate to even use the term mental illness in reference to them because of the stigma associated with the term.
In order to reduce some stigma about mental illness, I think it’s first important to look at a few statistics (courtesy of the Canadian Mental Health Association):
- 20% of all Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime
- Mental illness indirectly affects all Canadians at some time through a family member, friend or colleague
- Mental illness affects people of all ages, educational and income levels, and cultures
- Almost ½ of those who suffer have never gone to see a doctor about this problem
- Stigma or discrimination attached to mental illnesses present a serious barrier to diagnosis, treatment and acceptance in the community
- Most mental illnesses can be treated effectively
These stats come from the Canadian Mental Health Association, but they are fairly representative of global numbers. Let’s take a look at those stats for a moment.
20% of people are affected directly in their lifetime. Think about that for a moment. That’s 1 in 5 people. How big is your family? How many friends do you have? Chances are someone you know will be affected by a mental illness at some point. And it won’t just be someone you know, but it will be someone close to you.
Most people never realize there is something wrong, and as a result they never see a doctor about it or deal with it appropriately. In many other cases people realize that “something” is wrong, but they attribute it to something else in their life.
In most cases it can be treated, but sadly, most people suffer in silence.
Are you familiar with Multiple Sclerosis (MS)? Most people at least know the name, and probably many are familiar with the disease.
Our brain is the engine that powers our bodies, and our body control is largely a result of our brain sending messages to our body. When we want to walk, our brain sends the signals down to our legs telling them to move. We don’t even have to really think about things, we just do them.
MS is a neurological disorder where something has gone wrong with the signals that are sent from the brain to the rest of the body. Science doesn’t understand why MS strikes, but it does understand how it works.
Our brain sends messages to the different parts of our body through our nerves, which are covered in a fatty substance called the myelin sheath. The myelin sheath acts as an insulator, similar to the plastic coating covering wires and cables.
For people with MS the myelin sheath has started to break down resulting in disturbances to the signals being sent from the brain.
MS is a difficult disease to diagnose and treat because the symptoms of it can be quite diverse. The symptoms include:
- Numbness or weakness in limbs, possibly accompanied by tingling or pain
- Problems or pain with vision
- Tremors or lack of coordination
- Problems with speech
- Fatigue or dizziness
The symptoms depend on which nerves are impacted and the degree of degradation of the myelin sheath, and they aren’t constant. There may be problem periods followed by quiet periods of months or even years (kind of like faulty wiring that occasionally shorts out). But MS is usually a progressive disease, with symptoms worsening over time.
In summary, MS is a disease where brain functioning is working correctly but something is going wrong with the messages being sent to the rest of the body. It comes and goes, and it strikes different people differently.
What is Mental Illness?
In many ways, I see parallels between mental illness and MS. In MS the brains messages are misfiring when they are sent to the body. Mental illness however deals with cognitive and emotional recognition and responsiveness.
Often we think of a separation between the head and the heart. The brain is thought of as your intellectual core (and center of logic and reason); while the heart is seen as the source of feelings and emotions. In reality, all of the things that make us “us” come from the brain – thinking, reasoning, logic, feelings and emotions. The heart? Sorry, it just pumps blood.
The brain allows us to interact with our world, and feelings and emotions are often responses to our experiences. “Mental illness” is a term describing when something has gone wrong with the messages being sent and received by the brain (similar to MS), causing feelings and emotions to not line up with our experiences.
In MS symptoms vary depending on which nerves are impacted. Less is known about mental illness, but there are different types each with different symptoms (though there is some overlap).
Types of mental illness include:
- Mood disorders – involve changes and disruptions in mood and emotions. Depression and bipolar disorder are the most commonly known examples
- Anxiety disorders – the most common type, causing people to be overly anxious and afraid of situations or event most people consider normal. There are many different types, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Anxiety is different from depression, but often leads to it
- Schizophrenia – involves losing the ability to know what’s real and what isn’t
- Eating Disorders – involves a distorted body image along with serious and potentially life threatening behaviors to manage food and weight.
- Personality Disorders – affects the way a person acts, feels and gets along with others. Can also manifest in impulsive behavior
- Dementia – involves loss of memory, judgment and reasoning along with changes in mood, behavior and communication. Alzheimer’s is the most common form
Symptoms of Mental Illness
Although there are different types of mental illnesses, there symptoms tend to be similar. Here are some of the different signs that your mental health may need a bit more care:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Significant tiredness, or low energy
- Rapid weight loss or gain
- Feeling irritable
- Feeling sad or down
- Feeling trapped
- Feeling incompetent
- Inability to cope with daily problems or stress
- Sex drive changes
- Difficulty concentrating
- Excessive worrying
- Withdrawal from friends, family and activities
- Excessive busyness
- Loss of sense of humor
When I look at this list, one of the things that stands out to me is we ALL have these symptoms from time to time. We all have good and bad days, and in our bad days many of those symptoms appear.
It’s only when they are pervasive, generally lasting for at least six months (without at least one month free of symptoms) then they move from just being a “funk” to being a cause for alarm.
One problem is these symptoms generally come on gradually and worsen over time. For a sufferer, there are often understandable reasons for them. “Oh, I’m feeling this way because of X”. Eventually the funk can become a persons “new normal”, but because it’s been a gradual process the person suffering these symptoms may not even see what is happening or how much their moods have changed.
This gradual decline was described to me as follow:
People that I barely knew were noticing that I wasn’t myself, and that told me that I really needed to do something. I truly felt like I could just disappear into a hole and never come out, that really scared me and I couldn’t do that to those around me. (I was lucky enough to still have the mindset to care how this affected them, some people are not.)
You really can’t understand when you’re not there yourself. I don’t even understand myself. On one hand, I feel truly blessed with the great family and friends that I have and it actually pisses me off that I know this and still it doesn’t change how “dark” I feel. It makes me feel very selfish that I have all that I do and I still feel this way. I want to be the person that is happy and loving life, but it’s something I continue to struggle with. I can “fake” it around a lot of people when I feel that I “have” to.
Causes of Mental Illness
One of the big questions is, what causes mental illness? Unfortunately the answer is not known. It seems that it can be caused by a number of different things (and perhaps combinations of them).
There is some evidence of biological or genetic predispositions, and it is something that can also be triggered by injuries, hormonal changes, or environmental factors such as stressful traumatic events or even just extended periods of high stress.
Although the causes aren’t very well understood, it’s important to remember that the existence of a mental illness is not a reflection on a person. It’s not a character defect, or a sign that someone isn’t “strong enough”. Just as an MS patient isn’t responsible for having MS, people dealing with mental illnesses aren’t to blame.
One stat on mental illness that stands out is the fact that only around half of the people dealing with a mental illness ever seek help.
Maybe it’s because the symptoms are things people commonly experience and they think they can just “figure it out” on their own. Maybe they don’t notice how much they have changed due to a gradual decline, or maybe there is a fear or the stigma associated with mental illness. I don’t know.
But the fact remains, most mental illnesses can be treated effectively. There is no reason to suffer in silence.
So if you or someone you know is having a hard time coping, go talk to a doctor. Be honest about what is going on and how you are feeling.
The first step to getting better starts with you.