What is mental illness?
Mental illness is not a choice. It’s a way of behaving that is informed by a brain that is either wired incorrectly or chemically imbalanced. Mental illness results from problems with the communication between neurons in the brain (neurotransmission).People often assume that people who are depressed are consciously choosing to shy away from life or stay in bed all day. This is far from the truth. Everyone wants to feel proud of themselves and many want to actively contribute and feel they live a life with meaning and purpose. Depression removes that meaning and purpose. To add insult to injury, depression isn’t always understood by those that have never experienced it and invariably the ignorant messages such as, “Snap out of it” or “Stop feeling sorry for yourself” emerge. This only makes a depressed person even more useless than they already feel.
Even individuals who are considered mentally healthy engage in behaviours that they don’t fully understand. Addictive behaviour is a good example of this. We often wish to act one way but find that we do the opposite. I know that I should eat well and exercise daily but do I do this? Not on your nelly. What I think and what I do aren’t always in unison.
Mentally ill people do they best they can with the ‘bugs’ in their software. Think of a PC with a virus, this is similar to the brain. Anti-depressants and other Psychiatric drugs help alleviate symptoms but mental illness is a real disorder. It isn’t a matter of someone deciding to act in a certain way. Society still struggles to accept mental illness and perhaps it is a lack of understanding thats brings out fear in people. If you can’t see the problem (as you would do with a physical illness) it can be harder to quantify the problem.
People aren’t always sure how to deal with people who have mental illness. Again, this uncertainty might make people avoid those with mental illness, thus furthering the divide and minimising the chance of understanding. With the label of mental illness, a whole new set of discriminations and problems must be overcome.
I have worked with mental illness for many years and most mentally ill people just want love and understanding like the rest of us. Many people with mental illness want to fit in and live a normal life. Mental illness affects people in different ways. For some, it saps the joy (depression), for others it involves hallucinations and delusions (Schizophrenia) or it may involve a complete lack of conscience and empathy (sometimes leading to psychopathic behaviour). There are too many manifestations to discuss in this one post but the main point of this post is to define mental illness. It’s not a choice. Too much (usually prolonged) stress can cause mental illness (psychosis is one example) as stress can cause chemical alterations in the brain.
The brain is an amazing organ though with the ability to adapt (brain plasticity). Research carried out at the National Empowerment Center has shown that people can fully recover from even the most severe forms of mental illness. In-depth interviews of people diagnosed with schizophrenia have shown that these people are capable of regaining significant roles in society and of running their own lives.
In addition, cross cultural and historical studies indicate that chronic mental illness is a recent phenomenon of Westernized countries. Recent studies by the World Health Organization show that the rate of recovery from severe mental illness is much better in third world countries than in Western industrialized countries. If we are to better understand recovery from mental illness we need to see that anyone could be labeled mentally ill.