EDITOR'S NOTE: This monthly series is dedicated to increasing community understanding about brain disorders, treatments, and recovery. Christine Hearth, M.A., executive director of Willapa Counseling Center, is the source for this first column. Members of the WCC staff will contribute future articles. Barbara Bate, WCC board member, is volunteer coordinator for this series.

What is mental illness?

There are a number of serious illnesses based in the brain. Mental illnesses are physical illnesses. Long ago an artificial category was carved out to describe some illnesses because medical science didn't know until recently the biological causes of these disorders. Researchers now know that there are biological or biochemical problems behind these brain illnesses. [Note: These illnesses include depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, post traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks, and bipolar disorder.]

A person's social environment can increase or decrease the severity of a mental illness. For example, schizophrenia has a biological basis, as does diabetes. Stability or the lack of it, along with foods and environmental factors, can worsen an illness. No single cause determines whether an adult, youth, or child will experience a particular brain illness at a particular time.

What is a serious mental illness?

Historically a serious mental illness meant a severe and persistent disorder. Often these disorders were seen as serious because of extreme behavior that evoked fear in other people.

Anxiety and depression as disorders are often not visible to others and thus not always thought to be serious. But people with these disorders can be very much at risk and unable to experience life in a positive way. Depression in any form is a serious disorder that needs treatment.

Bipolar disorder, formerly called manic depression, can exist in several forms and show mild or severe symptoms. Some people do fine with medicine and social supports, while others exhibit severe problems throughout their lives.

The most serious result of an untreated brain disorder is suicide. The majority of people completing a suicide are those without treatment. Most at risk are elderly men experiencing depression and having access to a gun.

What is treatment for a mental illness or brain disorder?

Different kinds of treatment are used for different illnesses, but some patterns are relatively constant. With depression, for example, short-term psychotherapy and an appropriate antidepressant medication bring the best results. For many conditions affecting the brain and behavior, some kind of medicine and some kind of therapy are needed in combination. The therapy may be insight-oriented or it may be case management to help a person with managing daily life tasks.

Many medications developed during the past decade give people major relief from problems with thinking and emotions, so they can live with purpose and enjoyment. Finding the right medicine or medicines for a particular person, however, can be a challenge for a clinician and for the individual in treatment due to interactions within the person and in the environment.

How did you become involved in the mental health field?

First I was curious about why we do what we do and what happens with our emotions. I saw a lot of people struggling and suffering and unable to find treatment. The options were only an expensive private psychiatrist or a state mental hospital. When I learned about community mental health as something accessible to everyone, I wanted to be involved in that. I've been amazed over and over again to see the difference in people's lives when they recover, find themselves as they want to be, and become productive.

Like a bacterial infection that requires an antibiotic, these illnesses do not go away by themselves. In many mental illnesses, there may not be a cure, but treatment can bring the disorder into remission. The most crucial thing is that people believe that they can recover. Even in the most recalcitrant illnesses, people can have much less suffering and much better lives. That's a good thing!

For more information about mental health and mental illnesses, phone 642-3787 in Long Beach or 875-9426 in South Bend, or e-mail wcc.christineh@willapabay.org. The emergency 24-hour number for Willapa Counseling Center is (800) 884-2298.

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