Earlier this week, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones checked herself into treatment for bipolar disorder. This brain disorder can cause unpredictable mood-swings that range from severe depressions to euphoric highs. This is the second time Jones has publicly announced that she was seeking treatment for the disorder. Now an outspoken advocate for bipolar disorder awareness, Zeta-Jones never intended to go public with her condition. Instead, she felt the same strain from the stigma about mental illness that affects so many silent sufferers.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month: A month for us to reflect upon the sheer prevalence of brain disorders in our society. The numbers are staggering. As presented in his April TEDX talk, National Institutes of Mental Health Director Tom Insel M.D. reminded us that:
- 1 in 5 are affected by a mental disorder
- 1 in 20 are disabled from a mental disorder
- 75% onset of a mental disorder by age 24
With so many affected, and at such a young age, you would think these brain disorders would be widely discussed and openly accepted. Yet a powerful stigma prevents many from seeking the crucial diagnosis and treatment they need. In turn, this vicious cycle can lead to a reduced quality of life, seclusion, and even suicide.
Eric Kandel M.D., a Nobel Prize laureate and one of the most esteemed neuroscientists of our time, offers a new perspective for tackling the stigma: "All mental processes are brain processes, and therefore all disorders of mental functioning are biological diseases." He and Insel both agree that treating mental health diseases as brain disorders will help to reduce the stigma.
Think about it, would you be ashamed to admit that you had asthma? Probably not. So why is it any different for schizophrenia? The more we talk about a mental illness stigma the more we remind people that there is a stigma. Instead, consider them brain disorders, just like any other disease that causes dysfunction.
We're just beginning to understand the brain, let alone create the technology to study it. There is little doubt that in the next 10-20 years, breakthroughs in diagnosis and treatment will be discovered. But until then, this Mental Health Awareness Month, think about those affected by these brain disorders, because chances are you might know one of them.