Aishwarya Iyer Bhasker
Imagine someone suffering from something that is as fatal as cancer, but it is all in their mind which makes it hard to even explain to someone. Surviving with it is so hard that they find it difficult to zip up their jacket or pull the bus cord. This disease is also multifactorial, which means it is caused by multiple factors, including multiple genes and environmental factors including the maternal environment, much like cancers. But unlike cancers or any illnesses that manifest physically, these are widely misunderstood and considered as just weaknesses or the fault of the patient. I just described how debilitating and isolating clinical depression or Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) can be. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
The deep-rooted stigma surrounding all mental health issues arises from lack of awareness of the symptoms and causes of mental illnesses. Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a renowned neuroanatomist said, “Although many of us think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think.” She goes on to explain that at the neuroanatomical level, information flows from the inner emotional part of the brain, called the limbic system, and then moves to the higher cortices for high-order cognition. Therefore, when our emotions get hurt, the way we think is affected. Hence the genesis of mental health issues.1
As for the biological basis, psychiatric illnesses like MDD, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism are still widely researched in the neuroscience community. Since the brain is the most complex organ of the human body, much of what we know about the brain is because of studies done on people with such deficits. The limbic system is thought to be dysregulated in these mood disorders.2 The amygdala (a component of the limbic system) is thought to be hyperactive in depression facilitating a mostly overactive response to negative stimuli. Since the limbic system is in connection with the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, which play roles in learning and higher-order cognition, these structures show decreased volume in people suffering from depression (Note that I used this term instead of saying ‘depressed people’; they should not be defined by their condition). Hence, the brain’s ability to learn and form new memories and make decisions is severely impaired. 3
The most common psychiatric illnesses are MDD (6.7%), bipolar disorder (4.4%) and GAD (3.1%) in adults in the United States. 4 Especially in the last year, aka year 2 of the CoViD-19 pandemic, 19% (almost one in five) of adults experienced mental illness in the US.5 For so much we know about mental health issues, there is so much we do not know. But what we do know is this is the time to be kind to all and do our best to be inclusive of everyone, neurotypical or not.
The author is a Ph.D. student at University of Wisconsin-Madison and her research involves studying the involvement of certain neural circuits in controlling complex behaviors like social motivation.
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