The human brain has 100 billion neurons, each neuron connected to 10 thousand other neurons. Sitting on your shoulders is the most complicated object in the known universe. – Michio Kaku
As I’ve mentioned in The Numbers (go read it if you haven’t) mental health is an issue that desperately needs more attention. I know it can be hard to understand why people behave certain ways, and that can deter us from really engaging with individuals who could use your help. I’m going to do my best to break down the basics of mental illness to (hopefully) change the way you understand people’s actions.
First, let me make it clear that any mental illness is a medical condition, just like your bum ankle that prevented you from going pro in badminton. Mental illnesses are not the result of weakness. They don’t reflect a person’s character or intelligence. They don’t make people more violent or dangerous as a rule.
These are real, physical dysfunction in a person’s brain. These are also treatable, like any other illness. In fact, current estimates of treatment effectiveness claim between 70%-90% of individuals see a significant reduction of symptoms resulting from psychotherapy, medication, support systems, or a combination of any of these (NAMI).
So, how does somebody become mentally ill, you ask? The answer, unfortunately, is not simple. Any number of factors can contribute to mental health: from biological factors like genetics and brain chemistry to life experiences including trauma and abuse. What is common, however, is that the brain is somehow changed. Prepare for an oversimplified crash course in brain functioning below.
Your brain consists of a very complex system of cells called neurons, which are responsible for sending and receiving electrical signals. As a child, your brain starts to connect these neurons together, and you develop the ability to move voluntarily, show emotion, remember things, reason. The more you use these skills, the stronger the connections become. This process continues through your early 20s (or possibly longer, as recent research suggests).
Now it starts to get a little more complicated. Since you are constantly taking in information, your brain could get a little overwhelmed if it tried to store everything. For skills that you don’t use anymore, your brain begins to disconnect those neurons to use somewhere else in a process known as synaptic pruning. This is why I can no longer do a kickflip on a skateboard, despite devoting weeks of my 12 year old life learning to do so.
Where two neurons connect there is a small space where chemicals are passed from cell to cell. These chemicals are called neurotransmitters. They help to transport the electrical impulses throughout the brain, or in some cases stop the signals from traveling further. The important thing to remember is that these chemicals play a large part in certain mental health conditions. They can affect mood, like in depression and anxiety disorders. They contribute to addictive cravings. They can cause the extreme excitement seen in bipolar disorder. The point is, these chemicals are really important.
Here’s how this all fits together. If your brain has too much of too little of a certain chemical, your thoughts and emotions might change. The connections between your brain cells determine the skills that you have to deal with these changes appropriately. You may do something that makes you feel better, but it may not be the best response. This response that is not the best but is good enough becomes stronger every time you do it, until it is automatic. For example, my default emotional response is to cry. I cry when I’m sad, when I’m angry, or when I’m laughing so hard that I can’t breathe. Sometimes, crying is not productive, but it happens anyway.
The good news is, some of your brain can be changed! Your thoughts and feelings can clearly influence your behaviors, but many people don’t know that it can also work the other way around. Feelings come from our experiences. One way of changing behavior is to have new experiences. This is the basis for many therapies. As you learn new skills and experience situations differently, you can change the structure of your brain over time. It’s like exercise. Medications can help with the chemical component by affecting neurotransmitter levels in the gaps between neurons. With the help of counselors and psychiatrists, individuals with mental illnesses can get individualized treatment to greatly reduce their symptoms.
If you think you know someone with a mental health issue, however severe, let them know that you support them. Check out mentalhealth.gov to learn more about specific illnesses and the signs that accompany them.