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The Search for a Better Solution: Is Mental Illness Preventable?

Few disorders are more terrible than those of the mind. Prevention would be the ultimate solution for treating mental illness. But is it possible?

The Unpredictable Nature of Human Health

Have you ever heard of Occam’s Razor? No, it’s not a tool you can shave with. This is a “law” attributed to the 14th-century philosopher William of Ockham. While never explicitly written by him, Occam’s Razor states that “the simplest solution is often the correct one.” For most of life’s problems, William’s law makes sense. At the very least, when attempting to prove something logically, an easy explanation is a good place to start. For example, many people assume that cancer is a single disease. In reality, cancer is a term for hundreds of illnesses with just as many causes and treatment options. Some cancers respond well to hormone therapy, while others don’t. Some don’t often spread to other parts of the body, or metastasize slowly. Some spread so rapidly and irregularly that even the most experienced doctors become unable to create a treatment plan in time to save a life. In truth, there may be no universal cure for cancer. But this realization doesn’t stop medical professionals from developing more effective solutions for cancer patients and survivors. The term “mental health” is much the same. It is a blanket term used to describe dozens of different conditions that vary in severity and intensity with every individual. While some of them have definitive causes, most of them are occur because of family history and genetic issues.

The Unavoidable Causes of Mental Illness

Nearly all of the medical professionals we have worked with admit that our current understanding of mental health is woefully incomplete. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual on Mental Disorders (or DSM) is currently in its fifth revision as of 2021, and the changes made under the topic of mental health during this latest update were as numerous as they were specific. One example is their changes to autism. No longer a single disorder, autism had been broadened to include conditions that fall within a spectrum (hence the change in name to autism spectrum disorder, or ASD). When first defined by Dr. Leo Kanner in 1943, he offered the incorrect notion that autistic children lacked “warm-hearted fathers and mothers” during childhood. Although untrue, the many theories made to explain the cause of autism serve only to cause confusion about the condition (vaccines causing autism being a popular one). Is mental illness the result of environment and life experiences? Are some people more likely to develop illnesses such as depression and anxiety than others due to their genes? Is one more to blame than the other? These are the main hurdles medical researchers are attempting to overcome.

Your Personal History of Genetics

The underlying causes behind most mental disorders are genetic. The important question is whether these abnormalities in brain chemistry and genetics are triggered by life experiences. Schizophrenia is an illness that affects less than one percent of the population in the United States. Unfortunately, like other mental illnesses, the genetic causes are not well understood. According to MedLine Plus, a small number of cases appear to stem from a “microdeletion” of a section of chromosome 22, the smallest chromosome in human genetic code. This minute change in a person’s DNA can also cause defects such as cleft palate, heart defects, and developmental disorders. While there is no “cure” for schizophrenia, developments in gene therapy research are showing promising results in greatly reducing symptoms of the disease without the side effects that accompany the most prescribed medications. Schizophrenia is thought to have environmental triggers, but it may take years before it can be truly preventable.

Missing Chemistry and Errors in the Code

While on the topic of genetics and brain chemistry, the most common mental disorder in the world—depression—is more than a lack of serotonin or norepinephrine. Often inherited from family history, the estimated genetic contribution to the cause of depression is about 40% while the remaining 60% can be placed on environmental factors and life experiences. Further evidence revealing the weight of genetic factors in mental illness is the breakdown of diagnoses between men and women. Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed as autistic and three times as likely to be diagnosed as schizophrenic. Women, on the other hand, are three times more likely to be diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety.

Abuse, Violence, and Trauma: The Search for True Prevention

Fortunately for all of us, our genetic dispositions do not determine what happens during our lives, and true prevention is possible for mental issues all across the spectrum. We all bathe, shave, brush our teeth, and exercise; it’s all part of good hygiene and health. But have you ever thought that your mind needed regular care in the same way? The idea of “mental hygeine” began in the early 20th century. Clifford Beers, founder of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, had himself and his four other siblings received treatment from mental institutions during their lives, and he saw an intense need to “eradicate the abuses, brutalities and neglect from which the mentally sick have traditionally suffered.” Can the pain and uncertainty inherent in depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and others be avoided?

Childhood and Mental Illness

According to UK pediatrician Dr. Ken Speigelman, “childhood trauma, in public health, is probably considered today the single greatest preventable cause of mental illness.” This is reasonable in more ways than one. Children are very impressionable in the way that their cognitive functions have not yet fully formed When they experience sexual or violent abuse, momentous changes such as parents getting divorced, or witness traumatic events, their very physiology changes. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a common issue for children that regularly experience traumatic events, and in the most extreme cases, individuals can develop dissociative disorders to separate themselves from the pain. Combined with drug use and alcoholism, there are few things in the world more tragic. The key to helping children through traumatic experiences is to get them qualified help as soon as possible. And the faster the better, as the pain of trauma can fester if left silent. The sad statistic is that half of all children and teenagers with a treatable mental issue are not diagnosed or assisted by medical professionals. Even if a serious form of trauma is not at the heart of their issues, beginning down the path of treatment as early as possible is the best form of prevention.

Begin Your Road to Recovery at Ardú Recovery Center in Provo, Utah

Have you experienced a form of trauma in your life that has driven you into a dark place? Are you ready to step back into the light and feel hope again? Visit the Ardú Recovery Center for a tour of our facilities, or contact us at (801)-512-0086.