Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Mental Illness

The headline on the front page of the Sunday Arizona Daily Star this week asked “Why don’t we help those with mental illness?” Talk about a population that is misplaced, the unfortunate individuals diagnosed with mental illness are probably at the top of the list. I think there are several reasons why we don’t help the mentally ill, and the first one is because we call it “mental illness.”

I am not a doctor, but given what I know, there really isn’t any such thing as mental illness. All diseases have a physiological cause, at least at the level of biochemistry, so it would seem more appropriate to call diseases of the mind by a name that reflects this. Perhaps “neurological disorders” or “cerebral anomalies” would be a better phrasing of such conditions. Our minds are not something disconnected from our brain and nervous system. Indeed, our mind originates from those sources.

Adding to the difficulty of diagnosing mental illness are the media stereotypes of those disorders. We continue to perpetuate myths such as schizophrenic people being violent. What does legitimately concern our society is the unpredictability of mental disease episodes. A manic or depressive period may come at the worst possible time for an employer, spouse, or friend to deal with. We are generally an impatient and selfish culture that gets frustrated (at the least) when we don’t know if we can count on someone to be there for us and our needs.

There is the stigma of mental illness to be sure, but we are also wary of being fooled. Don’t those with Multiple Personality Disorder just turn it on and off at will? There is this mistaken belief that the mentally ill still have some choice in their state of mind at any moment, because those of us without any affliction know how we are presenting ourselves to the world.

Another barrier to addressing mental illness is the notion that people bring on mental illness themselves. Drug use, for example, often leads to symptoms of mental illness such as hallucinations and erratic behavior.

Treatment is often an exercise in futility because the patient is not the best source of information on their state of well-being. Patients who are doing well because of medication may decide they no longer need the drugs, which then leads to cycles of sickness and recovery.

Patients therefore need “management,” but we have painted ourselves into an ethical corner because of our previous sins in committing mentally ill people to asylums where they were horribly abused. We are loathe to repeat such crimes, so dismiss the idea of institutionalizing “mental patients” in a society that celebrates freedom above all else.

We are also reluctant to intervene when we suspect someone may be suffering from mental illness. I see this in the entomological community whenever someone broaches the topic of “delusory parasitosis.” This condition is usually manifested by the sensation that insects are crawling on the person, or beneath their skin. The patient often brings bags of lint and dust to an entomologist, insisting that the bugs are “in there,” when even microscopic evaluation of the fibers and particles reveals there is no insect, mite, or other creature to be found. The entomologist then tries his or her best to pacify the patient or pawn them off on another expert, which leads to frustration for the patient, too, who can never get a straight answer.

What do we do, then? What is the answer? There is no single answer, but the first step is for us to become better educated on just what constitutes “mental illness.” We need to learn how to recognize it, especially in its early stages when treatment might have a better chance of success. Mostly, we need to have compassion for those who suffer from mental illness, as we do for those who have more obvious physical handicaps.

Let’s not let the mentally ill remain misplaced in our society. Let us find ways to integrate them into our places of employment, social circles, and our healthcare system.

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