The Brain Isn’t Perfect: a comparison of mental illness and physical illness

As I was listening to my local news radio station this week, one of the hosts said something related to mental illness that really struck me. He said that so many people have the attitude and belief that all parts of the body can get diseased or stop working right, but that the brain is perfect and can’t. He also said that many have the false belief and assumption that all brains work in the same way theirs do.

As I listened to this, I thought of how of course the brain can get diseased or disordered just like our lung or heart or lymph system or blood can. Its an organ too. Its a part of the body. Its not perfect.

It felt like a revelation to me, but really its obvious that it is susceptible to not working right—look at TBI victims, those with cerebral palsy, or mental retardation, or dementia. Of course there really can be illnesses and diseases that cause the brain to not work properly.

Yes, in some instances people do need to cheer up, buck up, pull themselves up from the bootstraps, etc. But for some people, their brain has stopped working properly and that is the problem, not attitude or work ethic.

I’ve run across some articles by people who argue that because there are no widely-used tests (like a blood test) to determine if a person has depression or some other mental illness, then mental illnesses must not be real. They seem to believe that a patient experiencing and describing a symptom is not valid for determining that an illness or disorder is legitimate.
But according to the National Institute of Health, physicians initially diagnose many diseases based on their symptoms alone, including migraines and Parkinson’s. I have a good friend who gets terrible headaches. She has been to a neurologist and had an MRI and there’s nothing to prove that she’s really having headaches. Does that mean her headaches aren’t real? Of course not. The neurologist, although unable to find exactly what is causing the headaches through tests, still knows the headaches are real and created a treatment plan that included medication and physical therapy.

A hundred years ago, our society didn’t have many of the tests doctors now use to diagnose diseases and conditions. Does that mean those conditions didn’t exist then because there weren’t medical tests to prove it?

Maybe in a hundred years, or even sooner, there will be tests for mental disorders. But they will continue to be real illnesses until then.

Another concern some have is the question of how mental illnesses can be real medical problems if they are successfully treated by psychotherapy alone. Some wonder if this means the person with the mental illness is just a weak person or doesn’t cope with life well. If their problem is alleviated just through therapy homework, how can it be a medical problem? Doesn’t that make it their own fault that they had depression or anxiety because they should have already been thinking the ways their therapist taught them?

As I’ve thought about how mental illnesses compare with physical illnesses or injuries, it has actually made me realize that there are more similarities in treating physical and mental problems than people may realize. Here are some examples:

First off, what can break a leg, or stop it from working? An accident, an illness, or maybe someone broke your leg on purpose like Tonya Harding did to Nancy Kerrigan.

What can break your brain? An accident like a car crash, an illness like strep (for OCD), or maybe someone who broke your brain through abuse (http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/2003/05.22/01-brain.html).

When you injure a leg, sometimes you need medical intervention to fix it or to alleviate the pain. You may need to have the bone set or may need a surgery. You may be prescribed pain meds. But to return your leg to its level of functioning before it was injured, there are things you need to do yourself to help it heal and work right—physical therapy exercises.

You shouldn’t have already been doing those exercises—your leg wasn’t injured and weak and not working right before. But since your leg stopped working properly—whether through a break, or a disease like polio—you now need to do these exercises to get it working right again.

Likewise, with mental illness, sometimes medical intervention is needed, like medications to balance the brain. But there are also things you need to do, like learn to to think in healthy, adaptive ways again in therapy to get your brain out of those patterns the illness put them into, just like you learn to walk again in therapy to get your leg out of the weakness your injury or the polio put it into.

Both learning to think better and learning to walk better can bring healing from the specific injury/illness you are suffering from.

Thinking because thats what your brain does. Walking cause that is what your leg does.

The leg is involved with walking, running, standing up, and balance, so if you leg isn’t functioning right then you won’t be able to do those activities healthily. The brain is totally involved in mood and fear and thinking, so if your brain is not functioning right you may not be able to do those activities healthily.

Just because leg exercises bring healing, that doesn’t mean it is not a real medical condition. Just because psychotherapy brings healing from mental illness does not mean its not a medical condition. Just because you can fix something without medication or surgery, that doesn’t mean its not a real illness or injury.

A person who needs physical therapy exercises to heal their broken or disease-stricken leg does not have weak character. A person who need psychotherapy to heal their broken or illness-stricken brain does not have weak character. You just use the type of therapy for the specific body part in need according to the way it functions. Leg therapy for a leg. Psychotherapy for a brain.

A friend of mine thought of another good comparison when we were talking about this. She explained that the medication they give you for a broken leg doesn’t heal the leg, it just blocks the pain. Your body heals itself, as long as the bone is in place, through rest and physical therapy. It is the same with mental illnesses. The medication “blocks” the emotional pain (whether depression or anxiety), and you heal yourself through therapy.

I think it could be that fear is at the root of people’s attitude or belief that mental illnesses aren’t real illnesses. They may feel that if they can deny that mental disorders are real and assert that positive attitude and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps will make life just fine, then they won’t have to deal with the fear of the possibility that they, too, are susceptible to mental illness.

Whatever the cause of this attitude, I hope that we can all work to spread understanding and break down the stigma surrounding mental illness. I hope we can help everyone to know that mental illnesses are genuine medical conditions, just like a broken leg, and are treated in very similar ways. And especially that because they are treatable, you don’t have to fear. Healing and happiness are possible.

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