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"Mental Illness | Facts"

What is Mental Illness?

Mental illness is a condition in the brain that can severely affect a person's ability to perform the normal day-day activities of life. Mental illness is literally an illness of the brain. A biological change occurs in the brain of a person which disrupts and diminishes their thinking ability, mood, behavior, and overall normal functioning abilities.

Mental illness can have very adverse effects on the person afflicted with the illness and their loved ones. Mental illness can have extremely severe effects on a person's employment, financial management, personal care and relationships.

There are different types of mental illnesses and different levels of severity. In those with a milder severity of mental illness it may not be very evident that they are ill. On the other hand others may show very obvious signs of mental illness such as secluding themselves, extreme agitation and confusion. Fortunately whatever type mental illness or level of severity there is treatment that can help.

Most Common Types of Mental Illness:
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Major Depression
  • Borderline Personality Disorder
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Panic Disorder
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder  

Mental Illness Statistics:

  • Only about 60 percent of people with mental illness get treatment each year.
  • In 2011 about 5 million US adults reported they did not receive treatment for their mental illness.
  • The most common reported reason for non-treatment was healthcare affordability
  • In 2011 over 45 million adult Americans suffered from mental illness.
  • In 2011 over 11 million adult Americans suffered from severe mental illness.
  • More than 450 million across the globe suffer from mental illnesses. (WHO)
  • 23 percent of women in the US on average are diagnosed as having a mental illness.
  • 17 percent of men in the US on average are diagnosed as having a mental illness.
  • In the US the average life span of a person with severe mental illness in comparison to the general population is 25 years shorter.
  • People with severe mental illnesses are more likely to have other health risk factors such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, stroke, and pulmonary disease. (NIMH)
  • In comparison to the general population people with severe mental illness more commonly smoke, have weight problems, abuse substances, have poor fitness, have unhealthy diets and engage in less physical activity. These factors all contribute to the reported shorter average life spans of the severe mentally ill. (NIMH)

Cause of Mental Illness:

Scientists to this day still have not been able to determine the exact cause of mental illness. Research studies are ongoing to discover the exact cause because doing so will most likely lead to earlier detection methods, better treatment, less severity of illness, and perhaps even the possibility of a cure. Studies to date seem to indicate that mental illness is most likely caused by a combination of factors, including:

  • Genetic Traits: Certain inherited genes can increase the risk factor for acquiring mental illness. Although inheriting genes from blood relatives with mental illnesses does not always result in one acquiring it themselves, their is more likelihood.  
  • Chemical Imbalance: Neurotransmitters are responsible for sending messages throughout the brain. If this chemical is not working properly or is imbalanced, such a biochemical change in the brain can effect mood and be a factor in mental illness.
  • Psychological: Negative life experiences and their accompanying psychological anguish and stress can be a contributing factor in triggering mental illness. 
  • Environmental Factors: Substance abuse, poor nutrition, and pre-birth exposure to toxins, alcohol, drugs and viruses. Although substance abuse and poor nutrition may not be the direct cause of mental illness they can both be precipitating factors in its onset.(NCBI) Pre-birth exposure to alcohol, drugs, toxins and viruses has also been found to be a contributing factor for mental illness. 

Treatment for Mental Illness:

Mental Illness treatment has evolved significantly over the years. The very early methods for treating mental illness, although well intended were very crude. The methods used in the very early attempts at treatment, were not very effective. In hindsight some would even say, early attempts at treating the mentally ill, were very cruel.
picture of tears flowing from the eyes of a suffering man

People who become afflicted with mental illnesses, can be clearly seen to be suffering. Because of the obvious signs of affliction, doctors have attempted over the years to help. Today the attempt at helping the mentally ill, has vastly improved.

However, doctors today continue trying to improve the outcome of their treatments. Because of the efforts of doctors, people with mental illnesses have a much better chance at leading a normal life.

The Early Mentions of Mental Illness:

Mental illness was recognized over four thousand years ago. In the very earliest stages of attempts to treat mental illness, many theories about treatment that would help existed. Some of the very early crude suggestions for treatment, included the advisement that the mentally ill should turn to religion or faith, or talking it out as a cure. Despair was considered the cause of ones mental illness, and faith was considered the cure. Some suggested music, natural diets, and exercise as a cure.

Others suggested entertaining stories, or humor, as a diversion tactic to help. Some believed that bleeding or purging would work as a treatment. Demonic possession was the cause, and exorcism was considered the treatment by some. In the early years of mental illness, many people were actually chained up, and tortured with whips and chains, because their condition was considered to be caused by a demonic possession.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the great English scientists and philosophers of the day including Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and John Locke argued that reason was the faculty that elevated humankind above the animals. The mentally ill were considered to have descended to a brutish state by virtue of having lost their reason.

The mentally ill were considered to be fierce creatures that could break chains and cords, bear cold and heat, fasting, strokes and wounds without sensible hurt. It was believed that by discipline, threats, blows, tortures and torments it would induce the minds of the mentally ill to give up its arrogance and wild ideas and become meek and orderly.

Early Methods for Treating Mental Illness:
man strapped in tranquilizer chair for mental illness treatment

In the late 1800's , the father of American Psychiatry Dr. Benjamin Rush was the first to recognize, that mental illnesses like bipolar disorder are real diseases, they are diseases of the mind. Dr. Rush believed that in order to have effective treatment of the mentally ill, the circulation of blood to the brain had to be influenced. He believed that it was possibly an inflammation of the brain that was the cause of mental illness.

Dr. Rush designed a chair now known as the tranquilizer chair. The purpose of the chair, was to calm, and immobilize his patients. The theory was, that by controlling the pulse of the patient, and thereby reducing the force of the blood flowing to the brain, it would perhaps relieve ones mental illness. No harm but no good, came from this attempt at treating mental illness.
man in spinning chair used as part of treatment for his mental illness


Around the same time in the late 1800's, Dr. Joseph Cox started the use of a spinning chair, as treatment for mental illness. He referred to the spinning chair, as a safe, and effective treatment for mental illness. Many varying spinning chairs, and even some spinning bed designs, begun springing up to treat the mentally ill.

The theory was that by sending blood racing to the brain, this would relieve the congestion in the mentally ill patients brain. This method of the treatment of mental illness, often caused the patient to turn pale, vomit, and end up in a deep sleep. It had no lasting helpful effect for treating the mentally ill.
Picture of the former Oregon State Insane Asylum's library where abandoned deceased mentally ill patients cremated remains were kept on shelves

Treatment for the mentally ill remained very crude, and cruel for many years. Even up into the 1900's, people with mental illnesses have been put into what were called insane asylums. These asylums, were often in deplorable condition.

Families often abandoned their mentally ill relatives, putting them in these asylums, leaving and never returning. In the former Oregon State Insane Asylum, cremated remains of the mentally ill, who died and were left unclaimed by their families, were stored and sealed on shelves in canister's. 

Later in the 20th century, beginning in 1936 and into the 1960's, psycho-surgery was introduced and began to be used in treating mental illness. A psycho-surgery procedure widely known as a lobotomy, became a widely acceptable treatment for mental illness. The belief was, that by severing certain nerves in the brain, this would relieve the overload of emotions, that were thought to be the cause of the mental illness of a patient. It was thought that mental illness was caused, by faulty connections between the frontal lobes of the brain and the rest of the brain.
doctor is performing a lobotomy as treatment for his mentally ill patient

There were different procedures for performing this surgery, including shoving ice picks into the eye socket just above the eye and into the brain. Operations to sever the neural pathways between the frontal lobes and the rest of the brain, were thought to be a helpful treatment for mental illness. 

Although lobotomies did have some instances of success, the majority of those who got them, did not fair well. Many lobotomies resulted in patients being either paralyzed, left with childlike intellects, comatose, or dead. 

Around the same time, electrical shock treatment was introduced, and was also being used for treating mental illness. Although the method was widely used, the early attempts at treating mental illness with shock therapy, were not very successful. People treated by electrical shock, often ended up with broken bones, impaired mental abilities, and some even died from cardiac arrest.



Modern Day Era of Treatment:

Because of the lack of success in other treatment methods at the time, like shock therapy and lobotomies. Doctor's begin leaning more heavily toward drug therapy for the treatment of mental illness. The first anti-psychotic drug was introduced in the U.S. in 1954. Many more drugs for treating mental illness soon followed.

Today, there are drugs available to treat a patients psychosis, anxiety, and depression, which are three of the major categories of mental illness. There are multiple types of anti-depressants, anti-psychotic, anti-anxiety, and mood stabilizers available.  For drug therapy to work, doctors and patients must work together, in order to find the right combination of drug therapy, and patients must correctly use them as prescribed.

Drug therapy does not cure mental illness. But drug therapy often improves the severity of the symptoms. This enables many with mental illness to function and feel better. With psychotherapy, and good management of potential side effects of the medications, an even better result can occur. Although drug therapy has vastly improved the treatment for the mentally ill. Anti-depressants don't work at all in 30% of the people being treated.

In the 1980's shock therapy for treating mental illness came alive again. This however, is not without controversy. There is a stigma about the use of shock treatment again in treating the mentally ill. This is understandable, because of the mostly failed attempts, and harm, that was caused by shock therapy treatment in the past.

However, the American Psychiatric Association has said, present methods of shock treatment are both effective and safe. Shock therapy utilizes electric current applied to a patients head to induce a grand mal seizure. Many patients have experienced a lifting of mood as result. Doctors are still unsure why it has such effect. Currently over 100,000 Americans have shock therapy each year. Shock therapy is now mostly referred as electro-convulsive therapy or ECT. Electro-convulsive therapy is currently being used to treat major depression, mania and mixed mood states.

Present day methods of shock therapy has made important changes. These changes greatly reduce the prior dangers of the treatment. Anesthesia is now used for example, prior to administering of the shock treatment. Modern methods use less intense current and is applied across a smaller area of the brainSome reported studies, are supporting modern day shock therapy, as an effective treatment for mental illness. Especially so for those who are not helped by drug therapy.
doctors are performing modern day shock treatment on a mentally ill patient
Modern Day Shock Treatment

Some doctors are saying, that modern shock therapy is in their opinion, the best choice of treatment for mental illness. Other doctors however, caution against such treatment, saying that there is still a severe memory loss danger for patients.

Doctors against it also argue, that the depression relief patients are reporting are temporary, and that their depression will return, as soon as the therapy cycle has ended. MSNBC did an interesting article on modern shock therapy and its modern use in treating mental illness.

The University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore Maryland is starting a clinical study reducing the ECT electrical stimulus dose below the amount necessary to induce seizures so that adverse cognitive effects such as confusion and memory problems, are minimized. The investigators intend to determine whether ECT-related cognitive impairment can be reduced without diminishing the therapeutic effect of ECT. 

The Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto Canada are studying the use of strong magnetic fields in inducing seizure in patients. By using magnetic fields in treatment instead of electrical current, the hope is to provide effective mental health treatment with less risk for memory loss.This procedure is called magnetic seizure therapy. Here is a You Tube video of the potentially breakthrough brain stimulation treatments for mental illness.

Nowadays, natural therapies for treating ones illnesses is very popular. Some have seen improvements in their mental health, using natural mental health supplements. The organization Help Guide, in collaboration with Harvard Health Publications, wrote a helpful article on mental health supplements. You can find their thoughts, on the effectiveness of mental health supplements here. In any event, before making any decisions, make sure to talk to your doctor about it.

It is being reported by America’s bio-pharmaceutical research companies, that pharmaceutical research is targeting mental illnesses with nearly 200 medicines in development. More than 300 million people worldwide suffer from some form of mental illness. From anxiety to depression and from schizophrenia to addictive disorders, such as dependence on alcohol or drugs. All of the medicines are either in clinical trials or awaiting approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Here is the bio-pharmaceutical 2012 report. 


Over thousands of years, many different attempts at treating mental illness have been made. Thankfully, today's treatment methods have vastly improved. Many people today, are still afflicted with terrible mental illnesses. But with the treatments that are now available, a lot of people are being greatly helped.


On a personal note, I have had bipolar disorder myself for over twenty years. I personally am thankful for the advances that have been made, in the treatment of my mental illness. At one time, people with mental illnesses suffered severely, and with no relief.  At one time, there was no effective treatment available to help people with mental illnesses. At one time, people with mental illnesses were extremely abused, and neglected. Stigma against mental illness, and some abuse of the mentally ill still exists. But things have vastly improved in those areas.

However improved mental illness treatment has become, my life dealing with the symptoms of mental illness, my life with bipolar is still very challenging. But because of improvements in treatment, the life of a mentally ill person, is now often a more full one.

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