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Image / Editorial

Dismantling the Stigma of Mental Health


by IMAGE
06th Jan 2015

New research blames inflammation…

When it comes to dismantling the stigma that surrounds mental health issues, we’ve certainly begun making inroads (thanks in large part to those in the public eye who speak openly about their struggles) but we’ve got a long way to go. We ask ourselves time and time again: why is it that a purely physical condition is more widely accepted than a psychological condition? Why have psychological conditions long been viewed as some sort of weakness? And why should we be labelled ‘brave’ for saying ‘hey, I’m feeling crap in my head’ if it’s not really considered brave to say the same about a sore leg?

But that’s where we’re going wrong. You can’t really have a condition that’s entirely ‘all in your head’. You’re not imagining it. Certainly, psychology is a huge part of it, but depression, anxiety and other such conditions are far more physiological than they’re given credit for. Your head is just as much a part of your body as your stomach, for example, and just as your gut requires the right balance to function at its best, so too does your brain. Someone suffering from depression hasn’t chosen to simply remain in a bad mood; there’s a very real physical imbalance of chemicals and hormones at play that manifests itself as depression, bi-polar, panic disorder, OCD and more.

Recently, we stumbled upon a very interesting article in The Guardian that like us, wants to do away with this unhelpful stigma. In it, the writer proposes that, based on new research, we may begin to look upon depression as a kind of allergic reaction towards various inflammations in the body. Give it a read, the research is compelling.

From the article –

According to a growing number of scientists, this is exactly how we should be thinking about the condition. George Slavich, a clinical psychologist at the University of California in Los Angeles, has spent years studying depression, and has come to the conclusion that it has as much to do with the body as the mind. ?I don’t even talk about it as a psychiatric condition any more,? he says. ?It does involve psychology, but it also involves equal parts of biology and physical health.?

The basis of this new view is blindingly obvious once it is pointed out: everyone feels miserable when they are ill. That feeling of being too tired, bored and fed up to move off the sofa and get on with life is known among psychologists as sickness behaviour. It happens for a good reason, helping us avoid doing more damage or spreading an infection any further.

It also looks a lot like depression. So if people with depression show classic sickness behaviour and sick people feel a lot like people with depression – might there be a common cause that accounts for both?

The answer to that seems to be yes, and the best candidate so far is inflammation – a part of the immune system that acts as a burglar alarm to close wounds and call other parts of the immune system into action. A family of proteins called cytokines sets off inflammation in the body, and switches the brain into sickness mode.

As the research that links psychological issues with physical inflammations stacks up, it seems we could be moving toward a point where the stigma might shift. But while blaming our physical bodies (i.e. something that appears to be beyond our cognitive control) for something that we once thought was all in the mind (and therefore seemingly within our control) might help in the discovery of new treatment, it suggests that we’re only comfortable speaking openly when something’s physically gone awry and that if no obvious chemical imbalance presents itself, it would be viewed simply as a mind-based weakness. This simply won’t fly with us. It must be okay to not be okay. It IS okay to not be okay, regardless of what’s to blame.

What do you think?

@CarolineForan

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