Mental Health: The illness you can't see

10:13 AM, Oct 2, 2012   |    comments
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CLEVELAND -- It's only been in the last 15-20 years that doctors have really started to understand the inner workings of our brains.

"The brain is very hard to study as a living organ," said Dr. Toni Johnson, a psychiatrist at MetroHealth Medical Center.    

When someone is mentally ill, chemical messengers aren't able to get where they need to go.  Just like any other medical condition, the severity depends on the patient.  

Dr. Johnson broke it down using the analogy of a relay race.

"So, in a way, the chemical is like a runner in a relay race that carries message (the baton). Each brain cell (neuron) is a portion of the track. The message must be passed to the next chemical (runner) who is waiting in the next brain cell lined up to carry the message. But the runner has to jump to the next brain cell to pass the message (the baton). If the brain is not healthy, the chemical messenger gets "tripped up" in the space and cannot pass the message effectively."

"Usually it has something to do with one brain cell, and we are talking very, very small at the microscopic level not communicating or talking to the next cell... To send the message it needs to send whatever that message might be whether it's thinking and concentration, or a message involving memory and recall, or even those things that affect emotions, feelings, that eventually, your behavior."

Those messages not getting where they need to go are why mental illness happens, however, there is always a question of whether or not the environment or upbringing played a role."

"It's frequently all of those interacting, but the bottom line is, there is a biologic cause, which is why mental illnesses are medical conditions."  

There are several different of mental illnesses. Each one is real and can be debilitating.  o find out about a specific mental illness simply click on it.  

The most common mental illnesses are Anxiety and Depression

Schizophrenia, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, affects about 2.4 million Americans, or 1.1 percent of the adult population. 

NAMI defines it as "the experience of loss of contact with reality and usually involves hallucinations and delusions."

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, according to NAMI, PTSD can affect many different people, from survivors of rape and survivors of natural disasters to military service men and women.                       

Bipolar Disorder causes unusual and dramatic shifts in mood, energy and the ability to think clearly.

There are several others.

Click here for a list and for more information from NAMI.

"We wouldn't tell somebody that has a brain tumor to just stop it, stop having those difficulties with recalling information, we wouldn't tell someone with a seizure disorder to just stop it.  We understand there are misfiring between the brain cells and they need medication they need treatment in order to function."  

Trying to get other people to understand this is a real illness can be frustrating. "Others around them who don't understand, might tell them, 'well, just stop it, turn it around, or pull yourself up and get out of bed and function' if they could, they would."

As for mental illness being a crutch, or an excuse, or just a case of not wanting to get out of bed, Dr. Johnson says this, "Everyone experiences those degrees of disconnect But with mental illnesses for example, even with depression, a very common mental illness, there can be a misfiring and peoples concentration can be severely affected to the point that they can't function in their job, or their home, with daily tasks."

Mental health advocates, including Dr. Johnson, know there is great work to be done to break down the stigma.

"I think for so long mental illness has been kind of the stepchild of medicine so-to-speak and not really in the forefront, explaining to the public, teaching people like we've done with other chronic illnesses. We've done a wonderful job teaching people about diabetes, breast cancer, getting screened, getting early treatment, not being ashamed... HIV and AIDS has done a better job in many ways than mental illnesses have in breaking that stigma and getting that information out to people so that people aren't ashamed about coming and getting checked and treated."

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