Mental health illness not a choice

The science behind mental health illness shows that the answer lies in the brain and blood

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Sebastian Gorlewski, ArtSci ’15

One piece of advice commonly given to people struggling with a mental illness is to “get over it — it’s all in your head.”

Despite all the anger, pain, and contempt that this phrase inspires in people who have or have had a mental illness, including myself, the second component of the phrase is partly true. Mental illness does have to do with your brain, but it’s certainly not a choice. And this is what neuroscience tells us.

Many people continue to assume that dealing with a mental health illness is a choice and one can simply “snap out of it”. This misconception harms and stigmatizes those who are dealing with mental illness.

In order to truly support and help those dealing with mental illness, we need to educate ourselves more on the root cause of mental health illnesses and to combat misconceptions and stigmas associated with it.

From dealing with my own mental health issues during my time at Queen’s, I’ve realized that it’s something I didn’t have control over. I couldn’t just “get over it” and that’s something important for others dealing with mental health issues to realize.

Through a friend’s help, I was able to better deal with my mental health issues, and this is why we should work to better understand the science behind mental illness and how to help others out. If it weren’t for a friend checking in with me and walking with me to Health, Counselling and Disability Services almost exactly three years ago, I wouldn’t be writing this op-ed right now.

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C. and attend the Society for Neuroscience Conference, an annual meeting consisting of over 30,000 neuroscientists from around the world.

Among the research presented at the conference, there was an emphasis placed on research regarding mental health and mental illness, especially depression — a disorder that will affect at least one in five North Americans in their lifetime.

Many of the talks were centred on the neurological root and genetic causes of depression. There are studies showing the difference in brain structure and function of those who have undergone depression compared to those who haven’t.

What the neuroscience community has known for years and continues to reinforce with research is that depression isn’t a choice. You can’t simply get over it.

In September, a study published in the Journal of Nature found differences, called biomarkers, in the blood of persons living with a major depressive disorder compared to people who weren’t. The blood of people experiencing depression is bio-chemically different than those not experiencing it.

Differences in the blood can be seen in other diseases and disorders, including cancer. Yet those diagnosed with cancer would never be accused of choosing to have it.

Depression and cancer are very different diseases. However, they’re similar in the sense that both can be treated and recovery is possible.

Perhaps one of the most wonderful parts about helping someone with depression or any other mental illness — such as anxiety disorders — is that we can all provide help. Not everyone needs to be an expert. A friend’s help can make all the difference.

The tricky part of recognizing depression in people we care about is that it can manifest itself in diverse ways. That said, there are common signs to look out for; usually, people suffering from depression will experience some sort of decreased mood or decreased interest in activities.

If you’re ever unsure whether to ask, know that it never hurts to show you care. The most embarrassing outcome is a good one: the person you ask will be feeling fine, and all that asking means is that you care about their well-being.

If they’re feeling down, listen to them. Express that you care about their well-being. You don’t even have to carry on the conversation because mostly, it will probably be them talking. Sometimes, the conversation will have long silent pauses. Silence is okay — the person who you’re supporting is making themselves vulnerable to you and sometimes it takes time them for them to think of what they say next.

Let the other person know that they shouldn’t feel pressured to say anything that they don’t want to say. Thank them for sharing with you.

Be aware that our resources at Queen’s are here to help. HCDS and the Peer Support Centre (PSC) are two services that will help you or who you’re supporting in every capacity they can, or point you to a more useful service. Even if you’re unsure of what to do, they’ll provide the expertise in how to move forward.

Depression stems from legitimate neurological issues within the brain. If we’re to treat depression and mental illness effectively, we need to realize that what is psychological is also physiological. Depression, like other disorders of the body, need to be treated appropriately, not just by telling someone to get over it.

With exams right around the corner, the stress in our community is immense. Realize that you have the incredible power to help those in need, including yourself. Finally, remember that we have amazing support services just a phone call or email away. You pay your student fees to them — use them.

Sebastian Gorlewski is a fourth-year Life Science major.

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