What is mental illness? For thousands of years and in every culture some persons have suffered disturbances in thinking, perceptions, emotions or behaviors. They do not choose to suffer in this way. Many times, the problem is caused by a disease of the brain. For other people, painful life experiences lead to disabling anxiety, depression and trouble relating to other people.
Ways of classifying and diagnosing mental illness have changed through the years as a result of new knowledge and understanding.
Psychiatric disorders now are diagnosed based on their signs and symptoms, rather than theories about what causes them. This is because we do not know the cause of many of these problems. Doctors and scientists have made a lot of progress toward solving this puzzle, but the brain is the most complex organ of the body. How does a group of cells and their chemical messengers direct and adjust our thoughts, emotions and perceptions of the outside world?
Since some brain functions and their relationship to consciousness or the mind are not well understood, critics have suggested that psychiatric disorders are not real illnesses. It is important to remember that other diseases of the body are also poorly understood but are no less real. Suffering is suffering, whatever the cause.
We will look at treatments of psychiatric disorders more closely in other articles. In general, mental health professionals seek to promote healing with talk therapy, and advice on changing behavior, relationship skills and managing stress and the use of medications.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors with additional training in diagnosing and treating mental illness. Psychologists are not physicians, but they have doctoral training in assessment and treatment. Much of the talk therapy in this country is provided by psychiatric social workers and professional counselors. Nurses also can obtain advanced education and training to practice independently.
With these options, it is sometimes hard to know where to go for help. A visit to your family doctor is a good start for advice and referral. Many family doctors and other physicians are skilled in helping with these disorders. Recovery from psychiatric disorders is better when individuals take an active role in their treatment, sometimes with self-help resources.
Future columns will take a closer look at schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, clinical depression and anxiety states, childhood conditions, eating disorders and Alzheimer's disease among others. Today, we are better able to help those with mental illnesses than before.
Dr. Matthew Wagner is a staff psychiatrist at Behavioral Health Services of Washington County Health System.