The basic idea of knowledge in our part of the world is generally what we have been told or what we have heard someone say. Probably the reason why many of our preconceptions about mental illness are incorrect.
A lot of us have heard of ‘mad people’, ‘nutcase’, ‘kookoo’ more than they have heard of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. In the event that most hear about mental illness, the first picture that comes to their mind is the man/woman they once saw on the street picking up rubble and laughing alone, even though only 2-3% of people with mental/behavioral disorders fall under that category. The fact that the illness has since been attributed to supernatural/spiritual causation for as far back as I can remember further makes its understanding a difficult one.
My realization into how little the attention for mental health is becomes ever so glaring in October. October of every year is Breast Cancer awareness month and this is the case for Mental Health. Even though millions of people and organizations across the globe are all pinked out in the month of October to support breast cancer awareness and research, not a lot of people know that GREEN is the color for mental health (well, in case you didn’t, now you know). People are ashamed to advocate for mental health or seek treatment for fear of being labelled (heck, I am even perceived to be abnormal when I present myself as working in the field of mental health). On the other hand, a significant percentage of people who present for treatment do so after they or their families must have exhausted all spiritual and traditional avenues and in most cases, they do present for treatment in very acute states.
The problem presents as a very complicated vicious cycle. We have limited resources for a very complex problem that most people don’t understand and many fear and are afraid to talk about. How then do we address the problem? Maybe we should start by understanding the illness.
WHAT REALLY ARE MENTAL ILLNESSES?
In more simple terms, mental illness is in part, an illness of the brain. A result of chemical imbalances in the brain. Understanding how the brain functions can help us understand the illness better.
The brain is an organ that controls learning, memory, senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch) and emotions. There are the nerve cells in the brain called neurons, and there are the chemicals called neurotransmitters/messengers that are responsible for sending electrical signals/messages from one neuron to another and to other parts of the body, allowing it to process information to keep the various functions of the body and mind working properly.
The communication between neurons is controlled by the brain’s type and level of neurotransmitters. Our moods and mental focus are profoundly affected by how efficiently these chemicals communicate messages. There are generally two kinds of neurotransmitters: The calm neurotransmitters (such as serotonin) and neurotransmitters that stimulate (such as adrenaline). Over 100 types of neurotransmitters can be found in the human nervous system, all of which affect our mood, energy, focus, sleep and memory. The proper functioning of these activities is dependent on the threshold balance of the responsible neurotransmitters.
In other words, there is a threshold that forms a balance of the calming and stimulating kinds of neurotransmitters in the brain to enable us effectively respond to various actions. For instance, when we experience danger or are under stress, we want our bodies to produce more stimulating neurotransmitters such as adrenaline to help us think quickly. Just as at night, we want our bodies to produce more calming neurotransmitters to enable us sleep soundly. Disruption of the chemical threshold of these neurotransmitters can lead to various mental health disorders.
Certain external and internal factors can cause chemical imbalances in the brain in ways that trigger mental illness. A few of such triggers are;
- Emotional/Physical Abuse
- Traumatic experiences
- Financial and work stress
- Genetic composition
- Sudden life changes such as divorce or death of a loved one
- Substance abuse
As stress seems to be a normal part of life and we encounter several triggers as we go on our daily lives, we are all at risk of developing neurotransmitter imbalance at some point in our lives. The good news is that our neurotransmitters are part of a continual balancing act. Our chances of developing an imbalance/disorder increase if we are exposed to triggers for a prolonged period of time. People with the genetic predisposition have a higher risk because their genetic components can cause their neurotransmitters to become more imbalanced more easily.
There are many different mental illnesses that include depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anxiety etc. As with many diseases, mental illness is severe in some cases and mild in others.
Depression, anxiety or stress reactions are more common conditions that people are most likely to hide or ignore thinking that these things are just parts of a person’s personality – no, it is not. We tend to confuse occasional sadness and mood swings as being depressed. We make light of depression by calling everyday things “so depressing”, making it seem as though depression is the same as being casually sad – no, it is not. During the period of occasional sadness, the neurotransmitters are released to a certain threshold to stabilize our moods. However, when these periods of occasional sadness become prolonged to the point of suicidal ideation and feelings of worthlessness, then we have a bigger problem.
In more metaphorical terms, when we hear that someone has cancer of the lungs for example, we are all so eager to sympathize with them and assist them in any way possible to help them beat the ‘enemy’ even if we are not as close to them. We don’t say ‘get over it’, we just instinctively help. However, when it gets down to mental illness it is a different ball game all together. We lose our sense of empathy, we ignore, we stigmatize. We sometimes blame the victims for their situation – ‘you are just a sad person’ and what not. A mentally ill person cannot simply snap out of it ( i went on to explain why this is the case in One cannot simply just ‘GET OVER’ Mental Disorders). The brain is an organ just like other organs in the body. Just like every other organ in the body, the brain is susceptible to injury and change from external and internal factors.
Ironically, no one can effectively function without the proper functioning of the brain yet mental health is the most stigmatized and neglected aspect of a human’s health.
Jean Clare Ogechi Igwegbe is a Public Health practitioner currently working in the field of Mental Health and Addiction. Being an introvert, Jean loves to express herself through writing.