Have you ever experienced an unexplained, life-altering, mystery condition that didn’t go away in spite of searching for answers from numerous physicians and specialists? Did it remain a mystery that became more than a mere inconvenience? So much so that it became a debilitating or life-threatening condition? If so, you are not alone. These are sometimes known as “medically unexplained symptoms” when they last for more than a few weeks, but doctors can’t find a problem with the body that may be the cause. Not understanding the cause can make them even more distressing and difficult to cope with.
Now, let’s look at mental health conditions in the same context as these “medically unexplained symptoms”. I would like to give you an example of a “possible scenario” for someone who is experiencing a mental health disorder.
You may find yourself suddenly becoming forgetful, unable to produce simple words, you may become anxious, paranoid, and deeply depressed, and you may have embarrassing physical symptoms such as sudden jerking movements in your body. People laugh at you, and you are humiliated. You spend years trying to figure out what’s actually going on and how to cure this mystery disease of the mind. However, there is no cure because you are told that at this time, there is no definitive diagnosable disease, and your symptoms are, just ‘all in your head’. The advice you are given? “Go home, eat well, get plenty of exercise, plenty of rest, and think positive thoughts”.
The scenario continues, and by now, due to the supposed ‘all in your head’ symptoms, you may find that you need to look for other employment or go on permanent disability. Finally, you begin to isolate yourself, friendships begin to fade, and you think it would just be better if you weren’t here at all. After all, you feel that you are indeed a misfit, and that the whole world is continuing on in its normal way, only without you.
I’ve just described to you the types of struggles that many people with mental conditions go through. Due to lack of knowledge, as well as stigma, many begin to feel hopeless.
You may say, “Oh, but we’ve come a long way in the way we look at mental illness.” But have we? Would you be willing to tell a group of people or a prospective boss that you have a mental disorder? Better yet, someone you were romantically interested in? Would you?
I was having a conversation with a friend of mine today about the possibility of speaking to a group about the role genetics plays in mental health conditions. I feel it helps to de-stigmatize mental health conditions when one understands the biological components behind these mystery diseases. I firmly feel that when someone knows that there is a real scientific basis for our mental health conditions, and that we are searching for cures, it will ease their minds. The reasons? One, they won’t feel completely alone. Two, there is hope. And three, for the first time in their lives, they might actually feel like they can breathe. There is a scientific reason, there is hope, and they are not alone. This is very powerful information.
I’m not going to pretend that we have all of the answers as of yet. We are far from it. But we are finally looking in the right direction; and that is in our genetic make-up, in our brain chemistry, and in our environment.
There is much evidence from recent studies that genetics and epigenetics contribute to many mental health disorders – and in some disorders, to a great degree. However, we still have a long way to go in discovering the complex interplay between genetic predisposition, environment, and situational factors.
While we wait for scientific research to give us more definitive answers, let’s help our children, young adults, and those of all ages know that what many are going through is real (not just in their heads), and that each day, we are learning more and more about the biological causes of mental health conditions. Let’s let those who suffer know that they are not alone. Let’ s let them know there is hope.