The Ginja Ninja approached me recently to ask a question. She has a friend, she explained to me, who may need someplace to stay for a while. Her friend struggles with mental illness, her friend’s parents don’t believe in mental illness, and as her friend turns 18, she may find herself on the street as her parents don’t like what she’s doing with her life.

I found myself momentarily speechless. We don’t have room for another body, not long term. And if it’s needed, we could make a space very short-term… but as I told the GN, there are resources, and that’s probably the best thing we can do to help her friend. But it wasn’t the practical ‘where is she gonna sleep?’ that worried me. It was the ‘doesn’t believe in mental illness.’

It’s not the first time I’ve run up against the concept. In certain religious circles it’s taught that you can’t be of God, and be depressed. Ergo, the words of the preacher (it’s not a Biblical concept at all) get extrapolated to ‘mental illness isn’t a thing’ by people who sit in their own pew every Sunday and never bother to think for themselves. You all who read me often know I am by no means irreligious. I am a woman of faith, but there are times I totally get why Jesus started flipping tables and whipping dudes who polluted his Father’s temple. This is one of my table-flipping moments, when I run across this brand of idiocy.

Do they also think that if they don’t believe in cancer, it’s not going to kill them? They can’t see the cancer, and often you can’t feel it, either. Mental illness needs to lose the first word. It’s illness, like diabetes, or the flu, or measles, or any number of other pathogenic disorders. It may affect the brain first, but it’s not all in the patient’s head. And it frequently affects far more than ‘just the brain’ as physical manifestations of the illness show themselves. I’m no doctor, but let me assure you that mental illnesses are just as real, just as deadly, and just as debilitating as any illness can be.

If their child had been born missing a foot, would these parents deny their child a crutch to lean on and learn to walk upright? Or would they insist the child learn only to crawl, or to hop, because crutches are artificial. What about a prosthetic? How different from those are medications and therapies to facilitate the mental health of their child? Now, granted, I’m not entirely happy with the community of quacks, charlatans, and downright evil people who infest the mental health field. Some of them are fantastic folks trying their best to assist. Others are… well, I’m a skeptic. Overdiagnosis is a thing, as is overmedication, and yes, we need to find a balance. Alternative medicine quacks looking to get rich off the tragedies of others certainly exists in the realm of the physical illness as well.  It still doesn’t meant mental illness is all in your head. It just means that the mentally ill are peculiarly vulnerable to being preyed on as their symptoms visible, but the root causes are elusive.

In fact, we can now see the evidence that depression, anxiety, and many other diagnoses are affecting the physical connections in the brain, through the use of imaging technology. “These methodologies have the advantage of 1) being able to measure neural activity as it unfolds in real time during cognitive tasks and at rest, and 2) being easily acquired from individuals across the lifespan—including infants—to track the development and progression of disorders that emerge early in development.  From innovative use of traditional ERP analysis techniques to time-frequency analysis and the use of source reconstruction to examine oscillatory properties of functional networks , recent expansion of the range of high temporal resolution recording methods has opened up new avenues for understanding the pathophysiology of mental illness.”

Science is also exploring the connection of the gut microbiome to the brain. We’ve recently learned that both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are connected oddly to the gut through microbiota and pathogen interactions with the brain. Studies have been conducted that connect the use of probiotics to manipulate gut microbiota and affect emotional responses of the double-blinded participants (does this mean eating yogurt will help with depression? No. Does it mean new therapeutic approaches may open up? Possibly yes). We see time and time again that mental illness has physical signs we can point at and say ‘this exists. This is totally a thing. It’s a treatable thing, but if you don’t treat it…”

My daughter’s friend is turning 18. A few years ago, shortly after I came to Ohio, a bright young (operative word here is young, so very young) 18 year old woman who was my classmate in Med-Microbiology died of a heroin overdose. I don’t know what triggered her drug use, but I do know that a lot of drug and alcohol use and abuse is triggered by a need to self-medicate against undiagnosed or untreated mental illnesses. Coping with their problems should not include drugging oneself out of their skull, or staying drunk enough to not care any longer. Some of this is a lack of resilience at a cultural level – kids are not taught to rely on themselves. Some of it is a cultural blindness to the reality of mental illnesses. We tell ourselves that it’s not real, it’s all in their head, and if they can just [insert easy alternative treatment here: exercise more, eat right, avoid ‘over-processed’ foods, toughen up, think happy thoughts] then they will feel better. And while some of those things may make an incremental difference, sometimes you need that prosthetic foot if you’re going to be able to do more than crawl painfully through life. Which means getting help from reputable mental health practitioners that practice evidence-based medicine. And most importantly, acknowledging that this is real, this is an actual illness, and no, it’s not all in your head.


7 responses to “The Disordered Brain”

  1. Godly people IN the Bible were depressed, and had other problems — Elijah suffered what might be called a mental breakdown, for example. So I don’t see how any Christian (who knows the Bible, and thinks!) could say that mental illness doesn’t exist. Some of it may be demon possession, but plenty of it stems from physical causes, as you mentioned, or from emotional issues (grief, among others). I’ve suffered off and on from depression much of my life, and at one point took medication for it. I stopped taking the medication because I had three little girls and the medication basically put me in bed and I could barely get up. Knowing the Lord and belonging to Him has helped me cope, but I still have to deal with the depression from time to time. I hope Ginja Ninja’s friend will be able to find the help she needs.

    1. And the medications have gotten much better over the years, too.

  2. Aimee Morgan Avatar
    Aimee Morgan

    You hit on the two things about Depression that piss me off – there is usually no visible representation, so it must be all in your head (as I told my boss, no shit Sherlock, that’s where my brain is located!) and everyone thinks that the answer is so simple – Cheer up! Leave your problems at work! Get over it!

    It’s a terrible, insidious thing, and even if you think you’re clear of it you cannot turn your back on it – that bastard will sneak up on you when you’re least expecting it. I’ve learned to recognize when I’m starting to spiral down, and will just get up and walk away from the trigger (mine is almost always work/stress related, so walking away for a short time is a possibility). I don’t like being medicated, but I do know that if I hit a certain point, I WILL be getting some of that nice Serotonin-in-a-bottle.

    1. And it’s more complicated by the fact that there are levels of severity. Some people really can beat it by getting out in the sun more, relaxing, eating better. Others might be in a horrible situation, and need meds for a season until life is improved, and then they can be recovered. Others still are like my example of a missing limb: with current technology, we can’t regrow that, and we can’t fix the brain chemistry imbalance, so that person might be reliant on meds and coping skills for a lifetime. None of those are wrong approaches. But they all get lumped together and misunderstood.

      1. I think that some sunshine and fresh air, some relaxing, and some eating better are always going to be helpful, along with some mild to moderate exercise. They just may not be *enough* help for some people at some times. They are at least a good starting point; if they don’t prove to be sufficient, then the person can go to the next step.

        And, if there are outside forces causing mental issues like depression, getting out of the situation is going to be helpful IF that is possible. It isn’t always possible.

        1. Draven Avatar

          it isn’t enough help for a *lot* of people, not just ‘some’.