The human brain is a wonder. Through folds of tissue and pulses of electricity, it lets us perceive, understand, and shape the world around us. As science rapidly charts the brain’s complex structures, new discoveries are revealing the biology of how the mind functions, and fails.
Given the centrality of the brain to human health, its malfunctions should be a priority, separated from stigma and treated on par with diseases of the body. We aren’t there yet, but a change is underway.
The treatment of mental illness has long been held back by the sense that disorders of emotion, thinking, and behaviour somehow lack legitimacy and instead reflect individual weakness or poor life choices. Not surprisingly, there has been a mismatch between the enormous impact of mental illness and addiction on public health and our society’s limited commitment to addressing these problems. Here are three examples of how that plays out:
Most emergency departments are ill-equipped to meet the needs of patients in the midst of mental health crises.
Most insurance plans view mental illness and addiction as exceptions to standard care, not part of it.
Despite an overall cultural shift towards compassion, our society still tends to view the mentally ill and those with addiction as morally broken rather than as ill.
Too often, individuals suffering from serious mental illnesses — those in greatest need of care — have been isolated and cared for outside of traditional health care, as in the asylums of the past. There, mental health care was separate from, and far from equal to, traditional health care.
Why the disconnect? Psychiatry has been hampered by an inability to observe and record the physical workings of the brain. Because of that, psychiatric assessments and treatments have been viewed as somewhat mysterious. Even today, the underlying mechanisms behind some of the most powerful and effective psychiatric treatments are still poorly understood. All of that translates into the difficulty that many people have finding help for real, disabling symptoms attributed to a mental illness or addiction.
However, just as other fields of medicine have evolved as knowledge advanced during the past century, psychiatry has also made profound progress. Advances emerging from unlocking the brain’s physiology and biochemistry are coming at a time when mental health care is being integrated into traditional health care. The potential has never been greater to finally bring psychiatry quite literally under the same roof as the rest of medicine.
Proven regimens for treating common mental disorders and addictions are aiding the “cure” rate and boosting public acceptance that such care works. Modern practices have the potential to improve public health and, perhaps equally important, engage families more actively in the care of individuals suffering from mental disorders and addictions.
Will the stigma of mental illness finally fade? Better understanding of the human brain and the biological nature of the mind will help, but it won’t be enough. How we think about mental health matters. When mental health is ultimately recognised as essential to physical health, not an extraneous element of it, then we will have access to true, complete, modern medicine.