By Sarah Koubek
It is hard to quantify disorders we cannot see. There is no blood test that determines whether someone is mentally ill. Instead, the experts have to ask questions, lots of them.
They have certain markers for disorders, like MUDA (maladaptive, unjustifiable, disturbing, atypical) and levels of intensity, frequency and duration. They use preceding medical cases and comparisons to make the best diagnosis.
Because of this, a social stigma around mental health has been created. People throw words like “crazy” and “insane” around loosely, and anytime someone shifts a pencil to be vertically upright they use the phrase, “I am so OCD.” They aren’t trying to be offensive or to undermine serious disorders.
The problem is that symptoms of mental disorders can be present in almost anyone. People are sometimes sad or get angry out of nowhere or talk to themselves or even just like having a neat room. We can have compulsive tendencies, periods of depression or even the occasional anxiety attack, but that doesn’t mean we have the disorder. Nobody says they have the flu when their nose starts running until they go to the doctor to get the test.
Often enough, people’s perceptions of disorders tend to be vastly different from reality. Mental health has not been widely discussed until recently, and it is still heavily controversial. But the media’s portrayal of mental health has caused society’s views of it to be skewed. Books, movies, even magazine articles can give inaccurate descriptions.
People have stereotyped disorders and combined symptoms of many different ones. Schizophrenia is actually a family of disorders, and some versions of schizophrenia don’t involve hearing voices. OCD consumes a person’s thoughts, making it hard for them to do anything while they are still thinking about other things. It isn’t neat at all. Depression isn’t sadness; it comes from a lack of activity in the brain, a lack of emotion.
Recently, brain scans have helped revolutionize the legitimacy of mental disorders. There is a very apparent difference between someone without depression and with it, as well as with schizophrenia. Levels of chemicals in the brain have also been charted with differences, as schizophrenic patients tend to have higher levels of dopamine in their systems. In addition, genetic and environmental research has led experts to understand how some mental disorders are traits passed from parents that become triggered through environmental situations. You can’t just develop some disorders; you have to have the genetic makeup for it.
All of these are making mental disorders quantifiable, measurable. Through this knowledge, we have been able to pair certain drugs with disorders, as well, counterbalancing the upset chemical balance.
As the medical breakthroughs continue, societal breakthroughs need to follow suit. While mental health awareness has drastically increased as of late, it is still a very unknown and underappreciated cause. Personally, I did not fully understand it until a couple of years ago. I had been aware of mental illness. However, it was rarely discussed in my family or in schools. I didn’t view it the same way I viewed the flu or a cold. But, as I got older, it became more apparent in my life, and when I went to high school I knew a lot more people with mental illness.
This past semester, I took psychology, and the last unit was on mental disorders. There were a plethora of instances where what I thought and what we learned didn’t match up. The things that I had been taught through media and gossip had been wrong.
Perception and reality become tricky when they don’t match up. It is fascinating and terrifying how society can alter how we perceive illness because of social stigmas. Because of this, it has been far more difficult for the people with those disorders to feel a part of society.
After understanding this, I have had far more empathy for those around me. The social movement toward accepting mental illness has come a long way within the last 50 years, but we still need to work as a society to help its growth, and that idea is not crazy.
Sarah Koubek is a senior at Grand Island Senior High.