There’s a lot of controversy nowadays from the stigma involved with depression and other mental illnesses. Some have the opinion that mental illnesses don’t actually exist and that they’re “all in the head.” Some believe that people “choose” to be depressed – that they’re either causing themselves to feel that way because they choose to think negatively about everything, or that they “have a lot going for them” or are so “smart” or “talented” that they have no real reason to be depressed. Some even accuse afflicted individuals of acting out on purpose just so they can get attention.
I call bullshit. Do people with Alzheimer’s choose to forget everything they’ve known their entire lives? Do people with Parkinson’s choose to lose control of motor functions to such an extreme that they are unable to even feed themselves? Do people with epilepsy choose to have debilitating seizures? Do any of these people do these things just for the attention? No. All of these diseases – which are only a select few from a long list of them – are accepted and recognized as “legitimate” diseases affecting the brain. So why can’t society also accept and recognize mental illnesses, when they too are afflictions of the brain?
If one were to research the science or biology of mental illnesses, they would find a good deal of articles out there “proving” they exist, and an equal amount of articles “proving” they don’t. So how do we weed out the opinion pieces from the articles based in fact? Start with this one simple question: What is this “proof” that they claim to have, exactly, and is it legitimate and based in science?
⇒ The Proof is in the Brain
“All mental processes are brain processes, and therefore all disorders of mental functioning are biological diseases. The brain is the organ of the mind. Where else could [mental illness] be if not in the brain?”
– Eric Kandel, MD ¹
Dr. Kandel has a very magnificent point. When people make dismissive comments like “it’s all in your mind” technically they are correct – the “mind” can only exist within the confines of the brain, which exists in physical form. So if the brain physically exists, theoretically so too does the mind.
Just as we cannot voluntarily control the functioning of other organs such as the heart or liver, we cannot voluntarily control the brain (the mind, yes, but not the brain itself). When areas of the brain begin to malfunction, such as chemical/hormone levels, it makes perfect sense that the mind should be affected. If a car doesn’t have the proper amount and balance of oil, coolant, brake fluid, transmission fluid, and fuel, it will no longer run properly. So how can we expect the mind to run properly if the chemicals that power its engine are out of balance?
“Neurotransmitters send chemical messages between neurons. Mental illnesses, such as depression, can occur when this process does not work correctly.”
– Brain Basics, NIMH ²
Some may also argue that depression or certain mental illnesses are not actually standalone “illnesses” themselves, but rather a symptom of another larger, more wholistic problem. So the argument is that depression (for example) is simply a side effect, and cannot exist without the presence of a “physical” disease.
This can be the case in some instances, yes. There are definitely diseases out there that can affect the brain causing symptoms akin to depression: hypothyroidism, heart disease, kidney disease, and multiple sclerosis (MS) to name a few. However, speaking from personal experience, I was medically evaluated and found to be in good physical health with no underlying issues or diseases when I was diagnosed with depression and PTSD. So in my opinion, this refutes the argument that depression cannot exist without a larger medical issue as the culprit. You could say the trauma I experienced was the culprit, and certain research does show that extreme trauma can physically alter the composition of the brain. (See links at the end of this article for more info.)
“Depression can “co-occur” or be triggered by an existing medical condition. The physical effects of depression are very real and often debilitating, but only around 10-18% of depression is triggered by another medical condition.”
– Mark Tyrell and Roger Elliot, The Depression Learning Path³
⇒ Medication and Treatment
There is a lot of discussion out there as to whether or not medication is just a “bandaid” and does not address the root of the problem. As mentioned above, when referring to depression as a byproduct of another existing condition/disease, then yes, antidepressants may not “fix” the problem; the actual disease causing the depression must be treated and not just the depression itself.
In cases such as mine, however, where there are no other conditions from which the depression stems, antidepressants and supplements help to ensure the proper balance of neurotransmitters are being produced in my body. Just as a diabetic needs supplemental insulin to function properly when their pancreas cannot produce it on its own, or someone with severe anemia may need iron injections (or even blood transfusions in extreme cases), the brain may need the assistance of medications/supplements that help regulate the necessary neurotransmitters and hormones for proper functionality.
“…the benefits of antidepressants stem from how they affect certain brain circuits and the chemicals (called neurotransmitters) that pass along signals from one nerve cell to another in the brain.” – WebMD
So then it comes full circle to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: why is it that we acknowledge and accept diabetes and anemia as “real” illnesses, but when it comes to mental illnesses we can’t?
⇒ Science vs. Opinion
I recognize that I am not an accomplished scientist nor am I doctor of any kind, and thus my article is categorized as an “opinion” piece. However, I base this opinion on years of personal experience with mental illness (in both myself and family members) paired with years of research and doing my best to remain up-to-date regarding any scientific developments in the field.
That being said, naturally I am a firm believer that mental illnesses exist. We do not choose to have them – but we can choose whether we acknowledge they exist and do something about them. The more research we dedicate to mental illness and the more educated we are in regards to what we are dealing with, the better we are able understand ourselves and those around us who suffer from these afflictions. So goes the old cliché: Knowledge is power.
⇒ RELATED: “You Hide it So Well…“
Sources & Useful Links
- Blog Disclaimer
- ¹ “The Roots of Mental Illness” – APA.org (American Psychological Association)
- ² “Brain Basics” – NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health)
- ³”The Depression Learning Path” – Uncommon Knowledge
- “The Science Behind PTSD Symptoms: How Trauma Changes the Brain” – PsychCentral
- “Biological Evidence for Depression: Proof Mental Illness Exists” – HealthyPlace.com
- “Onset of Depression More Complex Than Chemical Imbalance” – Harvard University
- “MRI Uncovers Brain Abnormalities in People With Depression, Anxiety” – Science Daily
What are your thoughts? Do you have a story or article to share, either for or against the “actual” existence of mental illness? I don’t wish to spark any arguments or political debates, so please keep all comments clean, friendly, and respectful. Anyone who cannot manage to do so will have their comment deleted and be blocked. My blog is a “safe place” for people to share their experiences and/or feelings without judgement. Thank you! ♥