Compassionate Love Blog: Displaying compassion for those who struggle with mental illness (c)2016 Nancy Virden, Always the Fight Ministry
I read an article written in 1960 supposing that mental illness is not illness at all. A simplified version of the author’s reasoning was, in part, that the mind is not the brain. Personality and emotions (mind) cannot have a biological source because they are not tangible.
What is fascinating is just how tangible in a way, these invisible aspects of who we are have become. While we cannot literally touch emotions, brain scans allow us to “see” them as our brain works. The biology of mental illness is now evident.
Part one of this series takes a brief look at some of the science surrounding the topic of mental illness. Beyond what we know of the biology of mental illness and physical environments that may increase our risk, social experiences are tougher to define. Scientists call environmental factors the “second hit.”
We like to make comparisons because the more something is measured and understood, the safer we feel. If Johnny experiences the blues and is over it in a week, and if he never left his stressful job or withdrew from his friends and family, then all Susie, who is depressed, has to do is quit feeling sorry for herself and grow up, right? Susie says she cannot handle working and stays in bed all day. We are tempted to say, “C’mon, Susie, be like Johnny already!”
Embracing the idea that Susie’s inner experience is different from Johnny’s might lead us to uncertainty. It helps to both look beyond the surface and to admit our limitations.
Johnny may or may not have a mental illness. Mental illnesses take various forms, and symptoms differ from one person to the next. There are criteria for diagnoses, and a professional’s assessment is superior to our guessing.
Some parents do well in teaching their children to cope after a death in the family or some other difficulty. As love and acceptance are freely offered in one home, the house next door may be unsafe. One family member may disrupt peace in a house. Many of us attended safe schools, while some students had to look over their shoulders every day. Religious training, friendships, television, video games, apps, books, and current events in the world all affect our beliefs, and how we think and cope.
None of the above are any guarantees of future mental illness. While it is not precisely fair to say our families or one person brought on our mental illness, there are some connections from childhood maltreatment or trauma to adult mental illness that even the most doubtful have to consider.
Trauma changes the brain. Whether lived or observed, people are traumatized by hard life experiences. Consider a boy who grows up in a violent atmosphere. He lives in survival mode during childhood while his brain is developing. He is flooded with stress hormones in a fairly constant state of threat. In a crisis, some regions of this child’s brain shut down while others fire up. There are “teams” (multiple parts of the brain working together) formed temporarily to handle fearful situations. All of these normal responses are overactive. It does not take a medical degree to see how this can affect the boy into adulthood.
Maia Szalovitz, neuroscience editor for Time .com, reported, “Even among the most resilient survivors, the aftereffects of abuse may linger. Not only are such children at later risk for mental illness, but because of the way trauma affects the stress system, they are also more vulnerable to developing chronic diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.” Scans uncover changes in particular parts of the brain in young adults who were victimized in childhood.
80% of adult patients in psychiatric hospitals were physically or sexually abused.** The lifetime number of suicide attempts significantly increases in cases of sexual abuse. Stress hormones early in life can damage us permanently. Our brain’s ability to bounce back, or flex with future stress may be injured. We may struggle to cope. Mental illness as an adult is itself a traumatic event, and with each episode the brain can be further damaged, raising the risk of more episodes.