Understanding mental health
Having a mental health disorder generally means a person has difficulty coping with everyday demands due to emotional or cognitive issues. Not surprisingly, it affects family life, work, school, and social settings. Most people associate it with feeling overwhelmed, sad, angry, or anxious. The problem might come on suddenly, such as after a traumatic event, or it may develop more slowly, over weeks and months.
About 25 percent of all adult Americans struggle with some kind of mental health problem at any given time.
A mental health disorder is nobody’s “fault.” It doesn’t mean that a person is lazy or bad in some way. It is not something you can just “snap out of,” try harder, and feel better. The cause for mental health problems are physical changes in your brain, and that is not something you can simply “will away.” Mental health problems are a result of the way the cells happen to be organized in your brain and/or an imbalance of a variety of chemicals, so-called neurotransmitters. Some names you might have heard in this context are serotonin, dopamine, or norepinephrine. Those neurotransmitters are the messengers in our bodies and they influence our emotions and our physical reactions, such as heartbeat. If we have too much or too little we “don’t feel right.” We may start becoming anxious or depressed or angry. We might even hallucinate or feel manic.
Understanding mental health in this way has arguably been one of the greatest advances of the 20th century. It has given us a way to understand, and consequently, systematically and effectively address mental health issues. We now know that by manipulating the levels of certain chemicals and changing the physical structure of the brain, we can actually feel better.
We often do this without realizing it. When we struggle with problems like anger, sadness, or anxiety, we may respond by reducing stress, getting more sleep, or getting more exercise. Our feelings improve and everything is fine. If the problem is more persistent though, it is advisable to obtain the help of a professional, a physician or a therapist, or both.
Medication is one method to treat symptoms and to correct the imbalance of neurotransmitters in your brain. Probably the greatest advantage to medication is that changes can happen quickly. Within days to weeks the most debilitating symptoms are often reduced. There are unfortunate downsides though. Often the changes are not permanent once the medication is discontinued, and there are usually side effects that vary significantly from person to person. There are clearly some disorders that respond best to ongoing medication. Fortunately, most disorders, even seriously debilitating ones, respond to therapy.
While some people prefer medication and others therapy, many find that a combination of both approaches is the most beneficial. One advantage to therapy is that long-term, permanent change is possible. Talk therapy, when done correctly, permanently changes the way cells in your brain are organized and even the levels of critical neurotransmitters those cells rely on. Of course, the downside to this approach is that it might take longer and is usually more involved than taking medication.
Therapy provides a safe environment that enables you to learn new behavior and new ways of thinking. Brain structures are modified, overactive regions are calmed down and underutilized areas are activated. By doing that, you are creating new pathways in your brain that you then can access in other situations. For example, a man who experiences anxiety every time his boss asks him about his progress at work might learn in therapy to interpret the question in a non-threatening way. This allows him to be more relaxed at work and, as a result, more productive and happy. He might even generalize this new perception to other situations, such as interactions with his wife, and feel better about his personal relationships, too.
Understanding that our mental health is intimately related to the way our brains are physically organized allows us to understand why mental disorders seem to run in families. The structure of our bodies, including our brains, is strongly influenced by the genes we receive from our parents. These show up as risk factors for particular mental disorders. For example, it is more likely that you become depressed at some point in your life if your mother and grandfather suffered from depression. The environment in which we live interacts with those risk factors, influencing whether we actually develop a disorder. In the case of a family having depression, adverse life events, such as trauma, abuse, or stress, increase the likelihood that you will develop symptoms.
As a result, it is important to know your family’s mental health history so you know your risk factors and can act accordingly. You can be more aware of your own behavior and prevent the onset of problems or take care of them much sooner. For example, knowing that you are from a family with addiction problems might make you less willing to try alcohol or addictive drugs.
Awareness of risk factors might also help you to raise your kids differently. As a mother who struggles with anxiety, for example, you can take steps to ensure that your child has additional, non-anxious role models and opportunities to develop self-esteem and confidence.
Just because you currently suffer from a mental illness or had symptoms in the past, doesn’t mean you will always have problems. With the right support, you can learn new skills, ease your symptoms, and continue to live a happy, productive life. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
- Antje Rath
- March 2013