What If Mental Health Was Brain Health?
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), almost 44 million adults and 14 million children in the United States have a diagnosable mental disorder each year. Regrettably, the issue of mental health remains shrouded by misunderstanding and stigma.
The stigma associated with mental illness prevents many people from getting help; fewer than half of those who suffer from mental health problems ever seek help. People do not want to be seen as crazy, stupid, or defective, and they often don’t seek help until they (or their loved one) can no longer tolerate the pain (at work, in their relationships, or within themselves).
Additionally, people with mental health problems say that the social stigma and the discrimination they experience from not only society but also from families, friends, and employers, can make their difficulties worse and make it harder to recover.
Unfortunately, the stigma associated with mental illness is deep-seated and difficult to overcome. One strategy to decrease this stigma is to educate the public that mental disorders, rather than being character flaws or personal weakness, have a biological and neurological basis.
What if we re-imagined mental health as brain health?
What if mental health problems were evaluated and treated like other medical issues, and physicians were using functional imaging tools, genetics, and other markers to guide treatment?
Currently, doctors prescribe psychotherapy or powerful combinations of medications without ever looking at how an individual patient’s brain works. When it comes to behavior, learning or emotional problems, doctors prescribe treatments in the dark.
Imaging changes everything. After looking at nearly 150,000 brain scans on patients from 120 countries, we know that when physicians don’t look at how the brain functions, they guess at what is wrong, and that can hurt their patients. Without imaging, physicians miss important causes of trouble, such as brain injuries, toxic exposure, and infections. People end up misdiagnosed and on the wrong treatments.
Consider the story of U.S. Senator Max Cleland, disabled U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War, recipient of the Silver Star for valor, and former head of the Veterans Administration. Forty-eight years ago in Vietnam, he lost his two legs and right arm in a grenade explosion. Although the physical injuries healed, the emotional anguish had never completely healed.
Prior to coming to Amen Clinics, his treatment path was slow, exasperating, and sometimes horrifying. For years he endured the all-too-familiar “throwing darts in the dark” approach to mental health issues – sharing his symptoms with his physicians, then based on those symptoms, being prescribed a variety of medications (anti-depressants, anxiolytics, and sleep medications), which he says were mostly ineffective or, in some cases, made him worse.
Senator Cleland’s scan results showed evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). This was critical information as it allowed his physicians to target a treatment plan to his unique brain health issues which in turn allowed him to significantly improve how he felt over time.
According to Senator Cleland, “Seeing my own abnormal functional scan helped me re-frame my problems as brain-based, medical, and not moral, which decreased the shame and stigma I had carried silently for decades. In addition, the value of knowing that the structure of my brain was normal, but the function was abnormal, gave me hope that my brain could get better if I was diligent about rehabilitating it… this motivated me to take better care of my brain in the many ways that were recommended, including improving my nutrition, sleep, and weight.”
The lack of the use of brain imaging has kept the treatment success of psychiatry behind medicine’s other specialties, decreasing their effectiveness with patients, and reinforcing the stigma that surrounds people who struggle with mental health issues. It is time to shed light on the biological and neurological basis of mental health issues in order to decrease stigma and discrimination.
It is time to see mental health as brain health.
At Amen Clinics, we have spent decades helping people just like you improve their brain, and thus mental, health and can help you, too. Call us today at 888-288-9834 or visit our website to schedule an appointment.