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Friday, February 23, 2024

Column: Mental health

Mental illness can sometimes be a tricky topic to discuss. Though the stigma around mental illness has dissipated in the past few decades as understanding of its nature has grown, there can still be misunderstandings about mental illness: its causes, its symptoms and the people with them. Even writing about them is tricky; in this paragraph I’ve been talking about mental illnesses as a singular group, when in reality there are nearly as many varieties of disorders as there are with other types of disorders or illnesses.

There are some misunderstandings that are more wrong than others. For example, movies or novels that mention schizophrenics will often say something about multiple personalities. In Stephen King’s The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three, one of the characters has two personalities that take over her body at different times and each has no awareness of the other; she is consistently referred to as schizophrenic, even by a character that is an EMT.

This isn’t what schizophrenia is at all. Schizophrenia can have many variable symptoms, ranging from hallucinations and paranoia to disorganized speech and social withdrawal. Though a person with schizophrenia may not realize that they have a mental illness, their behavior is not akin to completely changing personalities.

Perceptions of other disorders can be even more harmful; at least everyone acknowledges that schizophrenia actually exists. Two that are somewhat related in ideology is that people with depression can just “get over it,” and that children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are just children whose parents don’t know how to raise them correctly.
For depression, that idea is often due to the notion that depression is too easily diagnosed, that feeling sad or stressed on occasion is enough to get you all the Zoloft you want. In reality, psychiatrists talk to their patients about stressors at home and at work before the main question: how disruptive are these symptoms to the rest of your life? Do you have feelings of worthlessness, emptiness or guilt? Have you lost interest in activities you used to love? Problems sleeping, suicidal thoughts?
Part of the problem is that though mental and emotional illnesses and disorders are linked to certain parts of the brain depending on the disorder, different people may show problems in different parts of the brain. Most people would never be able to tell where such a complex organ as the brain is going wrong.
People with ADHD face a similar issue as people with depression. When they’re children, their symptoms can be superficially similar to spoiled and unruly kids running amok, and a diagnosis of ADHD can often be condemned by people thinking that our youth is overmedicated. Easily distracted, procrastination, fidgeting or squirming in a seat — get my child a prescription right now!
However, there is a difference, one that the families can probably tell much more easily than a random observer. Other symptoms can include being very easily distracted by trivial noises, frequent shifts in conversation, difficulty with social situations and impulsivity.
Unfortunately, people with ADHD are probably going to have to face this stigma for quite a while still, as it can be difficult to tell normal childhood behavior from a disorder. For this reason, symptoms have to be present in more than one environment (for example, a child unable to pay attention both at work and at school) and, again, an inability to function in these environments.
Arguments about the existence of ADHD and depression are often conflated with arguments about over-prescribing medication. Though related, these are separate issues. It is something that psychiatrists are looking to fix, however; some doctors will accompany their prescription with a rough timetable of how long a person should be medicated. Some disorders, like depression, can stop treatment after a couple of years; others, like schizophrenia, are significantly more stubborn.
To those here at UC Davis or elsewhere suffering silently with these disorders, or if you only suspect that you may have one, I’d like to urge you to talk to someone. If you really don’t want to be medicated, at least talk to a counselor or psychologist.

AMY STEWART can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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