I am so grateful that I was born in this era. Not just because of air-conditioning, motorized vehicles and modern feminine products, but also because had I been born earlier I may have been locked away in an asylum or forced to live sequestered in my room, sipping laudanum and writing poetry. Fortunately, in the early 20th century Sigmund Freud came on the scene and the journey to understanding mental illness and addiction began. We have advanced so far in treatment for behavioral health diseases utilizing medication, counseling and other components of treatment. Breakthrough advancements have occurred recently due to the study of the human brain.
I think an individual’s brain is the most incredible and interesting part of the human organism. It’s amazing really, how energy and physical matter work together creating electrical impulses which jump from neurons to receptors, utilizing neurotransmitters which send messages and direct everything from bodily functions, to physical movement, to conscious thought and then to purposeful or impulsive actions. Combined with a person’s experience of their environment and their temperament, the manifestation produces a myriad of expressed behaviors. Hazelden’s Butler Center for research has an article that briefly explains substance use disorder (a subset of addiction that involves the use of drugs and alcohol ) and the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) has a brief explanation on mental illness that describes brain function.
When any type of health disorder occurs in people and chronic disease enters in we have been trained to have widely varying reactions to the type of disease that a person is diagnosed with. If it is a physical disease such as diabetes, cancer or heart disease we are raised to know that it’s not the persons fault this disease happened and people generally react with compassion and empathy. Prayers are said and society is there to help the person and family cope with the consequences of the disease. People seek treatment without stigma and are supported through their recovery process. Websites are created to keep friends and family apprised of progress and there is great celebration anytime a success in treatment occurs.
But in the genetic complexity that surrounds mental health disorders and addiction, as these diseases begin to blossom and express themselves in a person’s behaviors and choices, rather than us feeling empathy and compassion for them, we can view them as a pariah or odd or unfit and relegated to the edges of society attaching shame and stigma to our perception. Seeking treatment can be embarrassing and shameful, one can be viewed as weak or unfit because of a condition beyond their control.
Persons suffering from mental conditions are avoided and isolated, their manifested behaviors can scare us or make us uncomfortable. For addictions that involve certain substances we have added an extra layer of stigma by outlawing certain drugs and creating a legal consequence. Campaigns like “Just say no” pop up when someone in the grips of addiction can no more do that than someone with diabetes would just say no to insulin. And these diseases have family and social consequences as well which compounds our response because we feel compassion for the unintended victims who are affected and anger at the person suffering from the disease for causing such harm. Child Protective Services can get involved, children can be removed and the parents are seen as unloving and bad. These are only a few examples of society’s response to mental illness and addiction. The truth is that these people are sick and need our compassion and understanding just as much as a cancer patient does.
While I believe we are in the midst of a change in conscience regarding society’s perception of persons affected with these chronic behavioral health diseases, there is much more we need to do. Advocacy groups such as Faces and Voices of Recovery, Young People in Recovery, Mental Health America and the National Alliance on Mental Health are working to reduce stigma and provide support and information to persons suffering from these diseases. As a person in long term recovery, when I see someone in the midst of their disease, jailed once again for coming up positive with illegal substances when tested, putting their future on the line and flirting with death, I have to remember not to judge. At one time I was there too, I felt like using was the only way I was able to survive. I thought the grayness and hopelessness of depression was normal. Thank goodness, understanding people were there to kickstart me onto the pathway of recovery when I finally reached out for help.
The disorders of the brain are so complex, it is well beyond the scope of this single blog and the scope of my knowledge to try and fully explain causes, effects and solutions. Research efforts such as The White House BRAIN Initiative, NIDA’s The Brain Initiative, Brain and Behavior Research, articles about research such as Mental Health and Science, A Scientific Discovery Revolutionizes Our View of Addiction and areas of medicine and study such as Psychopharmacology are working to further expand our comprehension and study of the complex, multi-faceted diseases that comprise behavioral health.
Locally if you or someone you know needs help or would like more information or resources in our area please call MHMR’s ICARE hotline at 817-335-3022 or 1-800-866-2465 or go to TarrantCares.org.