There’s an epidemic coursing through America, silently capturing the lives of many people. It leaves them internally harmed and demoralized. It is stigmatized, looked down upon, and often viewed as unacceptable. I am personally responsible for contributing to the growth of this problem. But sometimes, life has a way of exposing you to situations and people that will dramatically change your perspective. This happened to me, and I feel obliged to correct my previous ways by being a voice for those experiencing this silent killer. We can treat it with awareness, compassion, and support. I boldly stand behind the notion that these illnesses are real problems that need real solutions. I want to be a part of a system and country that seeks to address awareness and answers. I refuse to continue being a part of the problem. There’s an epidemic coursing through America, and it’s called depression and anxiety.
As an aspiring physician, I hope to treat patients holistically and with a purely patient-centered focus one day. I am particularly interested in heart diseases. Who knows what type of physician I will become, but I find it fascinating the heart is uniquely connected to other body systems and plays a fundamental role in regulating normal functions. If a patient presented to me with symptoms of cardiovascular disease, I would certainly identify the origin of the problem and seek to address it with a canon of treatment options. It would be absurd to think that physicians would allow their patients to carry around undisclosed symptoms due to fear. If a patient came to me and failed to mention severe chest pain, it would greatly alter the course of treatment and would likely lead to poor outcomes for that patient. Why is it then, when a patient presents with a mental disorder they often feel restricted or discouraged to tell their family members and physicians? Like our hearts, kidneys, lungs, and immune system, alterations in the mind can lead to a “sick” mental state as well. These problems are real. I was someone who paid little attention to mental disorders before this summer. I don’t really know why there was a disconnect for me, but I do know that I wasn’t convinced that mental disorders were real. It gives me great shame to say that. We as individuals, communities, and a country must seek to understand the needs of patients with mental disorders and try to alleviate the deeply rooted stigmas these individuals are faced with.
From a humanistic standpoint, I previously thought anxiety and depression could be controlled and cured by an individual person. A lack of willpower, I suppose, would cause a person to suffer from chronic mental illness. I am revealing these very derogatory ways of previously thinking to illustrate what I believe to be a common theme throughout American opinion; however, from a purely scientific standpoint, a chemical imbalance in the mind cannot be controlled by individuals. Chemicals, specifically these types called neurotransmitters, control so many of our regular processes in the mind and ultimately throughout the rest of our bodies. A deficiency or over-production of certain neurotransmitters can wreak havoc on a person’s homeostatic levels of these chemicals and can lead to subsequent pathway activation or inhibition. I am not a brain biochemist, and I’m certainly not claiming to be one, but I can at least attest to the fact that the brain is infinitely complex and chemical imbalance theory likely plays a significant role in depression and anxiety. This means that in combination with other factors, chemical imbalance is a problem that people cannot control. Neuroscientists across the United States and world are working tirelessly to understand the basic mechanisms of depression and anxiety to hopefully develop better treatments and cures (insert: future blog post on the necessity of basic scientists vs. clinical and translational researchers). Furthermore, we can do something as non-scientists and as friends, family members, and individuals that interact with people who have mental disorders on a daily basis.
I propose a few key points.
The first: Let’s stop stigmatizing people who struggle with chronic illnesses of the mind. My initial point was the synonymity between cardiac diseases and mental disorders. Maybe this is hard for some people to understand (as it once was for me), but these are both simply problems that happen to the human body. I had trouble even typing the words “mental disorder” because the word disorder has such strong negative connotations surrounding it. The main reason I chose to use that term, though, is that I would not hesitate to write heart disorder or kidney disorder. In order to eliminate the stigma associated with depression and anxiety, we must treat them as we would treat any other human illness: as just that. It is a disorder. One that we must fight to normalize and identify. Mental disorders happen, and they will continue to do so as long as our brains hold the ability to change (which they will continue to do so). So let’s work hard to make these individuals feel less like outcasts in the world and accept them for being just like we all are: highly imperfect and flawed.
The second: Anxiety and depression affect a combined 25.1 million people in the United States (Anxiety and Depression Association of America). That’s a lot of people. It is very likely that you will encounter someone who struggles with these illnesses at some point in your life, probably daily. I suppose that these people look as if they have no struggle, they likely speak positively, and may even deny any kind of illness. Instead of trying to identify every person with a mental disorder, let’s seek to create a welcoming environment for someone who may need to talk about their mental struggles. Let’s become a more openhearted community and country and invite these special people to share what they’re going through. Much like a person with the threat of a stroke should let their family and friends know, we must be able to accept the responsibility of trust from these people. I desire to be a comforting hand, listening ear, and unbiased friend to anyone who needs to talk about what is happening with their mind. We can all be these types of people.
The third, and the last: If you find yourself struggling with a mental disorder, please know that it is okay. Someone with heart disease would have their health compromised if they felt the need to hide it from others as well. The best way we are going to solve this problem is if we have people come forward to be ambassadors for change. Mental illnesses are real. We all experience them at some point in our lives, maybe temporarily or perhaps chronically. Know that what you are experiencing is okay and be open to reaching out and talking with someone. We can all spread awareness, and we can all push for ending the epidemic that harms so many lives each year.
As a future physician, I pledge to create a welcoming environment for my patients to tell me about these things. I will seek to treat a patient holistically, including issues of the mind. Until I am a doctor, I will be a friend to those who need me, pray for those who are struggling, and try to spread awareness of the highly stigmatized illnesses of depression and anxiety. Our friends, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, pastors, professors, aunts, colleagues, and the world need us to band together and fight to end this epidemic.