What is Mental Illness?

What is Mental Illness?


What is Mental Illness?

“A lot of people are living with mental illness around them.  Either you love one or you are one.” Mark Ruffalo.

The definition of mental illness is consistently evolving.  Although educational campaigns and the increasing willingness of individuals living with mental illness to speak about their experiences have shifted the dialogue on mental illness, the stigma associated with mental illness persists.  Stigma involves negative beliefs, attitudes and behaviours toward individuals living with mental health issues. Some of these beliefs are that a person with mental illness is not normal, can be violent, is lazy, caused their own problems, is faking, and can get over it if they want to.  None of these is even close to the truth.  Nevertheless, misconceptions of mental illness continue to be perpetuated.

Mental illness refers to conditions that affect our thinking, mood, and behaviour.  It is the result of injury to the brain.  Brain injury can be caused by physical trauma such as a head injury or stroke. Other disorders that impair brain function, such as certain genetic disorders, fetal alcohol syndrome, pervasive developmental disorders, learning disabilities, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, thyroid issues, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease can affect areas of the brain associated with mental illness. Emotional trauma, chronic stress and a sense of meaninglessness also play a significant role. Additionally, social determinants of health such as age, poverty, social status, education and literacy, employment and working conditions, support networks, personal health practices, substance use and physical environments can all affect our brain health.

An individual with mental illness has differences in brain structure and function, compared to a healthy brain.  Our brains are made up of billions of cells called neurons.  These neurons connect to each other like a link. Chemicals, called neurotransmitters conduct message between neurons.  When we have too much or not enough of these chemicals the symptoms of mental illness emerge.   Alterations in the amount of chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine, GABA, and noradrenaline cause certain areas of our brains become too active or too inactive.  Areas of the brain that might be affected include the frontal lobe, parietal lobe, temporal lobe, occipital lobe, basal ganglia, thalamus, hypothalamus, cerebellum, and limbic system.  This damage causes changes in perception, sensory experiences, beliefs, ability to formulate and express thought, cognition, emotion, memory, ability to regulate temperature and movement.  A person’s thoughts and feelings about themselves and the world around them becomes significantly altered and distorted.  Impairment in one’s ability to function ensues.

The light in the darkness of mental illness, is that the brain can heal.  Medications can help to eliminate or reduce symptoms associated with mental illness.  They do this primarily by stabilizing the levels of targeted neurotransmitters.  More exciting though is that we have the capacity to improve our brain health through our own thoughts and actions.  We can create a more positive reality and support healthy brain function, by changing the way we think and act.  Stay tuned for future blog entries which examine and explore treatments, therapies and self-management strategies that support brain health.  

“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change” Wayne Dyer


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