Demystifying mental illnesses

Mental illness in many communities and cultures is viewed as a frightening or a strange condition.

The stigma of mental illness may contribute to another major stress, which can be as distressing as the symptoms themselves. Mental illness is more often deemed as a sign of weakness, lack of intelligence, an embarrassment which needs to be hidden from the public or to be made fun of as the person is labelled as “crazy.”

However, it may be surprising to know that several researches have shown mental health problems to be almost as common as the common cold. So what is mental illness? This term refers to a wide range of mental health conditions; disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behaviour. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviours.

Many of us may have experienced sadness, anger, fears/worries, or stress in our moods; however, it is not a mental illness until we experience frequency of the debilitating mood and its effect on our ability to function in our day-to-day activities. Mental illness is not the result of limited willpower or moral failing. It does not indicate whether you are a strong or a weak person.

These are legitimate illnesses, just as physical illnesses are, with complex causes which need professional treatment. To demystify mental illnesses let us consider a few common physical illnesses. Hypertension, strokes, heart attacks, cancer and diabetes are considered “medical” conditions with biological causes.

However, each of these problems can also be impacted by psychological and social/cultural factors like stress and poor choices regarding diet and physical activity. Still, it is interesting that individuals with physical illnesses are not considered weak, strange, embarrassing or lacking in intelligence.

Just like physical illness, causes of mental illness are multifaceted, which include biological, psychological and social/cultural factors. Here are some factors which may be responsible for the mental illness.

Naturally occurring brain chemicals called neurotransmitters and hormonal imbalances can affect mental health. People, whose biological family members also have a mental illness can be predisposed to develop a mental illness, which may be triggered by a life situation. This is a similar predisposition to physical illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.

In addition to inherited traits, outside forces can sometimes be linked to mental illness, for example, traumatic brain injury in an accident, and chronic physical illness such as cancer. Sometimes difficult situations in your life, such as the loss of a loved one, financial problems and highly stressful environment, history of sexual or physical abuse can play a role in triggering mental illness as well. This is not to say that everyone exposed to one or more of these factors would definitely have a mental illness.

It is a known fact that the more informed we are in specific topic, the more confident we are to challenge the stigma and help someone to receive the right services and support. The following is a list of the main groups of disorders with basic descriptions of each.

Mood disorders are disorders that affect how you feel emotionally. Examples of these are depression and bipolar disorder.

Anxiety disorders which are characterised by the anticipation of future danger or misfortune and accompanied by feeling fearful or worried. Examples include panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Psychotic disorders cause detachment from reality (delusions). The most notable example of this is schizophrenia, although other classes of disorders can be associated with detachment from reality.

Disorders of thinking (cognitive disorders), these affect your ability to think and reason. They include delirium, dementia and memory problems. Alzheimer’s disease is an example of a cognitive disorder.

Developmental disorders include a wide range of problems that usually begin in infancy, childhood or adolescence. They include autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and learning disabilities.

Personality disorders are characterised by emotional instability and unhealthy behaviour that causes problems in your life and relationships. Examples include borderline personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder.

Substance-related disorders include problems associated with the misuse of alcohol and illegal or legal drugs.

Other disorders include disorders of impulse control, sleep problems, sexual problems and eating problems. Also included are dissociative disorders which are disruptions or breakdowns of memory, awareness, identity and/or perception, and somatoform disorders, in which a person experiences physical symptoms without any evidence of physical illness.

Just as there are many treatment options available for different physical illnesses there are also several options available for each type of mental illness. Often the treatment is approached from all facets, i.e. medical, social and psychological.

Medical treatments include assessments and treatment for physical and mental conditions through medication, which may be prescribed by a psychiatrist.

Social aspects involve the individual being given an opportunity to receive social support through social services who may assist in connecting the individual with the right services in the community or financial assistance, and family support is also important as the individual needs emotional care.

Finally, counselling/psychotherapy treatments are provided to increase understanding/acceptance of the illness and to develop strategies to maintain day to day function.

It is imperative that the individuals continue to maintain awareness of their symptoms and treatment throughout their lives to maintain function and stability. To better understand this we can compare the example to individuals diagnosed with diabetes or hypertension who continually need to manage their medication, regulate their stress levels to keep them low and maintain proper diet and exercise for the rest of their lives.

Most people who live with serious mental illnesses can significantly reduce the impact of their illness and find a satisfying measure of achievement and independence through proper care and treatment. Just remember that a person is not defined by their mental illness; they are still a son/daughter, a brother/a sister or a friend who can be smart, funny and hard working but is dealing with an illness which needs to be treated.

Thinn Aung is a counsellor with the Employee Assistance Programme. For more information about the organisation, call 949-9559.