By Mairi MacRae, LCSW-C
Recently, articles have been appearing in medical journals describing interesting new research in brain imaging. These findings challenge our understanding of mental illness, and may point to new ways of treating it. And with one in four Americans over age 18 suffering from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, a greater understanding of the workings of the human brain could help us change some prevalent and hurtful assumptions about people with mental illness.
For example, researchers can now see and identify the patterns of brain waves of those who live with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Their brain waves actually look different from those of other people. Children with ADHD are often labeled as “inattentive, distractible, lazy, disruptive, or deliberately annoying.” They may struggle academically and socially, and many wonder, “What’s wrong with me?” But if we can show that ADHD has a physical, brain based cause, maybe we can take away the stigma, and focus more on these children’s strengths and ability to learn differently.
Advances in brain imaging are also bringing a better understanding of depression. MRIs of people suffering from depression reveal changes in the brain not seen in others. Will knowing that there is a physical explanation make it easier for people to seek help for depression? Perhaps they will be less likely to say, “I should be able to cope with this by myself” or “I’m just weak.” Will these new findings about the brain also help families better understand the depressed person’s behavior and how to relate more effectively?
What impact will the new research have on treatment? Until now there was no way to tell which depressed brain would respond better to talk therapy and which would do better with medication. So the standard of care for depression has been to recommend both talk therapy and medication. Now we know that there are variations in the brains of people with depression. Brain MRIs can indicate which brain will respond better to which mode of treatment. Hopefully this means that it will become easier and less time consuming to find a successful treatment for a person with depression. It could also mean that those suffering with depression will not be pressured to undergo treatment that does not work for them.
How wonderful it would be if a better understanding of the way the brain works enabled us to stop blaming people for their brain based illnesses, and start understanding psychiatric disorders as treatable conditions, much in the way we now understand diabetes, hypertension, and problems with vision. We will still need to follow through with treatment recommendations.
Just because it is “all in your head” does not mean we are not responsible for doing the best we can to treat our mental and emotional conditions, and also to urge those we love to take care of themselves. At the same time, we can look forward to future research. Perhaps more secrets of the brain will be revealed in our lifetimes that will further enhance our understanding of human emotion, thinking and behavior.
By Mairi MacRae, LCSW-C, JCS Therapy Services
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