Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Understanding Functional Mental Illness and your Brain

Kevin and Dylan attend your church. Tonight the phone rings and you're shocked by the news.
Both died today. Dylan had a stroke and Kevin committed suicide. You feel a rush of sympathy for both families.  Then you begin questioning why Kevin would commit suicide. Work was going well, he had a loving family, and he was just nominated to the church council. What reason could he possibly  have had?

On the surface, the deaths seem different.  They aren't. Dylan had high blood pressure and Kevin had a major depression.  They were both prescribed medication that controlled their symptoms. Because they didn't like the medication's side effects, about six months ago both of them stopped taking their pills. Their illnesses returned ----  unnoticed for the most part.  Untreated, both illnesses eventually killed the men.

Most people look at mental illness differently than physical illness.  They tend to believe that mental illness is due to character flaw or moral weakness.  It's important to recognize that the brain is an organ which is vulnerable to diseases just as any other organ of the body is vulnerable to disease.We don't understand as much about brain illness as we do about illness of other body organs.  Scientifically, it's difficult to study the living brain.  Added to that is society's history of prejudice against accepting that the brain is vulnerable to disease.

 When people have functional brain illness, their brains are diseased.  Often they have chemical imbalances which cause illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression, melancholic subtype. ("Major depression" is an umbrella term which covers four kinds of depression. Melancholic subtype is a biological depression, a brain illness.  It occurs when the brain does not have chemical messengers that mediate nerve transmissions.  About 20  percent of people who are depressed have this  functional brain illness.  (Ed. note). This article was written a number of years ago and today no doubt there are differences in the categorization of depression and statistics of depression. These are the ones this article addresses. (Many people who would say they are depressed would be feeling bad but not have brain illness.)

Christians who have functional brain illnesses and their families face unique struggles.  The symptoms of the illness are confusing because they seem like those of psychological or spiritual illnesses.  The problem is, people can't respond to psychological or spiritual therapy.  When treatment fails, the victims and their families feel guilty and disillusioned.To understand functional brain illness, it might help to look at the prejudice people have against brain illness.  Consider the expression: "It is all in your head."When people say this, what they're really saying is: "It is all your imagination" or "You're faking it."With functional brain illness, the phrase is literally true because the illness is in the limbic system of the brain.

We don't say, "It is all in your head" to a person with a brain tumor, but that would be accurate.However, we often let people with funcitonal brain illnesses know (either directly or indirectly) that we think their illness is "all in their head"(their imagination).  It would be better to say, "It's all in your brain." Not only is the statement accurate, but it is not prejudicial or judgmental.

Think of what you hear people say to someone who is depressed.  "What do you have to be depressed about?  Your husband loves you.  You have a good job." "If this is happening to you, you must have sinned." (Recognize Job's friends?)  "There is something defective about your faith."
When we make statements like these, we do it because we need to have cause and effect.  If a person gets depressed, we want a rational explanation.  If we can explain, we protect ourselves.
"She's depressed because this happened  and since that's not likely to happen to me, I won't get depressed.."  We look for ways to distance ourselves from the chance we might get what others have.  If we can't explain why someone got depressed, then we're equally vulnerable and may get depressed, too.
For some people who are depressed these will work.  But for others---those with functional brain illnesses---these won't.  The key is remembering that the brain is an organ, just as the pancreas is an organ. We ought not to think differently about the brain illnesses than other organ illnesses....
Dr. Theodore Mauger, M.D., psychopharmacologist, in Pine Rest Today.
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