We Need to Treat Mental Health Like any Other Illness

With millions of people around the world suffering from mental health problems, access to affordable, high quality care is more important than ever.

Mental illness and psychiatric problems are nothing new. No one avoids the pains, hardships, and turmoil of life. It’s something that connects each and every one of us, and in the past few decades we’ve made incredible strides in the destigmatization of mental illness, creating more and more opportunities for people to seek out the help they need. With a reported 21% of Americans experiencing a mental health condition in 2023 and 5.4% experiencing conditions so severe that they significantly impacted their day to day life, we need affordable and readily available resources more than ever. 

But even with the advancements we’ve made, an estimated 60% of Americans experiencing mental health problems are not receiving care. That’s staggering, especially when you consider that 12.6% of respondents to Etactic’s survey reported that they didn’t seek out treatment for fear of community or neighbor opinion, and another 9% said they didn’t want others to find out. 

Mental health issues extend far beyond just our emotional state, affecting our bodies in truly detrimental ways. The treatment of mental health issues and illnesses needs to be regarded as with any other form of physical maladies to truly create a healthier life for the millions of Americans suffering. 

The anatomy of mental illness

From an NIH Curriculum Supplement, Information about Mental Illness and the Brain, “A mental illness can be defined as a health condition that changes a person's thinking, feelings, or behavior (or all three) and that causes the person distress and difficulty in functioning”. According to the ACCESS Community Health Network, the most common forms of mental illness are anxiety disorders, major depression, and bipolar disorder. 

Anxiety disorders

Anxiety disorders are a group of mental health conditions characterized by excessive worry, fear, or apprehension. These conditions can significantly impact a person's daily life, making it challenging to function normally and enjoy a fulfilling life. Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health issues, affecting millions of people worldwide.

There are several types of anxiety disorders, each with its own unique features. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) involves persistent and excessive worry about various aspects of life, even when there is little or no reason for concern. Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) is characterized by intense fear and avoidance of social situations. Panic Disorder involves recurring panic attacks, accompanied by physical symptoms like a racing heart, sweating, and a sense of impending doom. Other anxiety disorders include specific phobias and separation anxiety disorder.

The causes of anxiety disorders are often multifaceted and can vary from person to person. Genetics, brain chemistry, personality traits, and life experiences all play a role in the development of anxiety disorders. Stressful events, trauma, or significant life changes can also trigger or exacerbate anxiety symptoms.

Major depression

Most people will experience bouts of depression at one point or another, but major depression is characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a loss of interest or pleasure in activities. It is more than just feeling down or experiencing a temporary low mood.

Major depression is characterized by a combination of emotional, cognitive, and physical symptoms. These may include persistent feelings of sadness, emptiness, or hopelessness, a loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed, changes in appetite and weight, sleep disturbances, fatigue or loss of energy, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, and recurring thoughts of death or suicide.

For a diagnosis of major depression, symptoms must persist for at least two weeks and significantly impair a person's ability to function in their daily life. The severity of symptoms can vary from mild to severe, with severe cases potentially leading to a complete inability to carry out normal activities.

Bipolar Disorder 

Bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression, is a complex condition characterized by extreme shifts in mood, energy levels, and activity levels. Individuals with bipolar disorder experience periods of intense euphoria and energy called mania or hypomania, alternating with periods of depression. It is a chronic condition that requires ongoing management and support.

Bipolar disorder is categorized into several types, including Bipolar I, Bipolar II, cyclothymic disorder, and other specified and unspecified bipolar and related disorders. Bipolar I involves experiencing manic episodes that may last for at least seven days and often require hospitalization. Bipolar II involves depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes that are less severe than full-blown mania. Cyclothymic disorder is characterized by numerous periods of hypomanic and depressive symptoms that last for at least two years.

Bipolar is believed to run in families, suggesting a genetic component. Imbalances in brain chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine, may also contribute to the development of the disorder. Stressful life events and substance abuse can trigger or exacerbate episodes in susceptible individuals.

While these are just the most common types of mental health disorders among Americans, there are many many more that deeply and severely affect millions of people, like PTSD, eating disorders, personality disorders, OCD, and more. 

Mental illness’ affect on the body

Our mind and body are intricately connected, and we have to treat them as such. Mental illness can manifest through a variety of physical symptoms. Common symptoms include headaches, muscle tension, digestive issues, changes in appetite and weight, sleep disturbances, fatigue, and a weakened immune system. 

Chronic stress and anxiety can contribute to cardiovascular problems, such as high blood pressure and heart disease. Depression has been linked to immune system dysregulation, leading to increased vulnerability to infections and slower healing. Mental illness can also impact the body's ability to manage and cope with chronic pain.

With mental health being such a difficult experience to navigate, mental illness and substance abuse often coexist as a means to self treatment or soothing. Substance abuse, such as alcohol or drug addiction, can have severe physical consequences, including damage to vital organs, impaired cognitive function, and increased risk of accidents or injuries. Substance abuse can also worsen the symptoms of mental illness and hinder the effectiveness of treatment.

How do we effectively treat mental health issues?

The resources available for mental health treatment and prevention are better than ever, but there’s a long way to go. The World Health Organization in their article WHO highlights urgent need to transform mental health and mental health care gives 3 places where we need to improve in order to give those suffering from mental illness the care they need. 

The first one is to, “Deepen the value and commitment we give to mental health”. WHO describes that, while giving the adequate funding and creating the right infrastructure is essential, creating the right community and combating stigmatization are just as important. 

The second is to, “Reshape environments that influence mental health, including homes, communities, schools, workplaces, health care services, natural environments”. This seeks to address the root cause of mental health problems, not just treat them. Taking a look at some of the social and economic issues that lead to mental health, like poor financial and social support systems and creating more laws that benefit victims of abuse, helps curb the risk for mental health problems before they occur. 

Finally, the last point they make is to “​​Strengthen mental health care by changing where, how, and by whom mental health care is delivered and received”. They describe this as moving towards a more holistic approach, and integrating mental health care into general medicine practices. 

Telehealth’s power in the treatment of mental illness 

In recent years, telehealth has emerged as a powerful tool in the treatment of mental illness, revolutionizing the way individuals access and receive mental health care. This mode of treatment has broken down barriers to mental health services, particularly for those who face geographical, logistical, or social constraints. Through telehealth, individuals can connect with mental health professionals from the comfort of their own homes, eliminating the need for travel and reducing the stigma often associated with seeking treatment. This convenient and accessible form of therapy has been instrumental in expanding mental health services to underserved communities, offering a lifeline to those who may have previously struggled to access adequate care. 

Furthermore, telehealth allows for flexible scheduling and enables individuals to engage in therapy at a time that suits their needs, promoting better treatment adherence and overall mental well-being. As technology continues to advance, telehealth is poised to play an increasingly vital role in delivering effective and convenient mental health care to individuals worldwide.

It is essential to recognize the profound connection between mental and physical health; they are inseparable. By treating mental illness like any other physical ailment, millions of Americans are given a shot at a better, happier, and healthier life.