Health Matters: Mental disorder does not define a person

HEALTH MATTERS with Ryan Hunton

Ryan Hunton

Your smile may guide someone toward better health. 

The definition of health has expanded in the last few decades. It challenges each of us to view ourselves and each other as not merely biophysical bodies that require medical-surgical fixes in times of disease but also emotional, intellectual, social, spiritual, and environmental creatures that require various forms of healing through times of both illness and wellness.

Mental health, like all other aspects of health, is something for which we constantly strive, and in our striving, we can help each other along. I find a smile to be an underestimated though ancient and profound method of therapy.

These various aspects of health are closely interconnected, and they become important to us as we consider ourselves and others as unique and wonderfully complex beings. A mental disorder such as depression, for example, does not define the individual that struggles with it.

It is only one aspect of a living person that breathes and thinks. He or she is one of us and deserves support. Although mental disorder can fundamentally affect an individual’s life (academics, social life, emotions and self-image), he or she remains human with a great potential for change, discovery, and growth.

Betsy Pierce, a licensed psychological associate at WKU, sees students on a regular basis at the WKU Counseling and Testing Center. She said that it is difficult to say how widespread mental health problems are at WKU because not all who are struggling seek help.

“In our center, we consistently see people coping with anxiety or depression,” she said. “Age can be a factor for mental illness. For example, schizophrenia tends to evidence itself in the early twenties, and anxiety and depression often occur in adolescence and early adulthood.”

A recent survey by the American Psychological Association found psychological problems to be a growing concern at college campuses with 46 percent of students reporting anxiety and 39 percent reporting depression. Suicide continues to be a leading cause of death for adolescents and young adults (age 15 – 24), and experts agree that it is largely connected with mental disorders. 

Thomas Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, calls conditions like anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia ‘the chronic diseases of young people.’ He prefers to call them ‘brain disorders’ rather than ‘mental disorders’ and he likens their effects to detours or traffic jams of the circuitry in the brain, impacting the movement of signals from one part of the brain to another. He believes that early detection and early intervention through the use of new tools will eventually lead to a reduction in the number of people with mental disorders, comparable to the reductions in heart disease, AIDS and leukemia in the last fifty years.

“We don’t actually even know what the tools will be nor what to precisely look for in every case … but this tells us how we need to think about it,” Insel said in a TED Talk filmed in January 2013. “I think that this is something that will happen in the course of the next few years.”

Depression is caused in part by a decrease of serotonin and other brain chemicals noted for their contribution to feelings of happiness, well-being, and energy. Still, happiness and sadness are emotions that can be explained by more than chemistry.

Serotonin release and restoration are affected by several factors including a person’s lifestyle, nutrition, social life, environment, spirituality, self-esteem, genetics and recent events that have happened. All of these factors interact, which means that one positive change may cause a ripple of positive effects just as one negative change can cause negative effects.

“Individual differences play a role in that not all people with the same contributing factors will develop the same problems,” Pierce said. 

Some experts even think that, in most cases, depression should not be considered a disorder at all. In a 2009 article in The Scientific American,Paul Andrews, assistant professor of Psychology Neuroscience & Behaviour at McMaster University in Ontario, and J. Anderson Thomson, Jr., a psychiatrist in Charlottesville, VA, argue that moderate depression can actually be useful to an individual. They said that studies show depressed people to be better at solving social dilemmas and complex problems through better analysis.

“Depression is nature’s way of telling you that you’ve got complex social problems that the mind is intent on solving,” the authors wrote. “Therapies should try to encourage depressive rumination rather than try to stop it, and they should focus on trying to help people solve the problems that trigger their bouts of depression.”

For many, mental disorder does not become severe enough to cross the threshold in which an individual begins to show noticeable signs. Still, for some mental disorder takes over life. Here are some guidelines if depression, anxiety, or mental disorder seems to have taken control:

  1.Talk to someone:It may help you to talk to a friend or family about your mental struggles. If you would like to speak with a professional, WKU Counseling and Testing Center includes a team of licensed therapists and offers help with matters of mental health. Pierce said that when she works with a student, she strives to meet him or her where they are and build a working relationship. 

“It is my goal to provide a space in which their concerns can be explored and problems decreased by making realistic changes in behaviors and how they cope,” she said.

  2.Keep a journal: Writing about emotional and mental struggle can improve your health. There are many different ways to do this, and you can certainly choose whichever way that you prefer. Find a time and place in which you will not be disturbed. Write about your worries, dreams or influences in life for a certain amount of time each day, and once you begin writing, do it continuously as the thoughts come to you. After you are done, you can do whatever feels best with your writing.

 3.Cut out risk factors that you can control: As mentioned, there are several potential factors to mental disorder, some that we can control and some that we cannot. Try to moderate certain controllable factors like sleep habits, caffeine intake, alcohol intake, and stress level. One of these factors may be at the root of your depression or anxiety, and you may notice a difference through practicing moderation. Try to make positive changes in your life one day at a time. Don’t underestimate your ability to heal yourself.

 4.See a health care provider: Pierce said that medications can be an important method of treatment for some people. Mental health nurse practitioner, Leta Whited, sees students at WKU Health Services and can assess if medication will help in your case.

 “Not everyone reacts or benefits in the same way,” Pierce said. “It is recommended that a person receiving medication do so in conjunction with therapy sessions, even if that therapy is not long term.”

 5.Don’t give up: Life contains a unique opportunity and gift for each of us. Move forward in life and good health with the support of those around you. 

Helpful Links:

Web MD.

WKU Individual Counseling 

WKU Mental Health Counseling

Scientific American article on depression 

TED Talk on Mental Illness