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According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, more than 18 percent of the adult population in the United States, roughly 42 million people, suffer from mental illness. However, despite the prevalence of mental illness in the U.S., stigmas abound. For example, during a 2004 survey of residents of Tarrant County in Texas, more than 40 percent believed that major depression is “caused by a lack of will power,” and more than half of those surveyed believed that schizophrenia could be the result of how a person was raised.

Due to these social stigmas, those afflicted with mental illness often avoid treatment—they assume that others will judge them for seeking aid, or that whatever ails them can be treated with a simple change in attitude. Interestingly, less than half of those afflicted with depression actively seek treatment. There are consequences to avoiding treatment: American adults with serious mental illness typically die 25 years earlier than other adults (due to untreated medical issues related to their mental illness), and more than 90 percent of children who die by suicide in the U.S. also suffer from some sort of mental ailment.

Social stigmas about mental illness need to change, and technology can help. Medical professionals can use medical imaging modalities, like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to measure and study physical and chemical changes that occur within afflicted brains. Using this technology, the medical community can highlight that mental illnesses are true illnesses—ones that exhibit physical symptoms that require professional treatment and not simply a change in emotions or attitude.

Mental Health vs. Physical Health

There are, of course, differences between mental and physical illness, and these differences often spur common stigmas regarding mental illness. For instance, people claim mental illnesses are “all in a person’s head” or “made-up.” For example, look at diabetes—a medical professional can test a person’s blood and determine concretely if a person has the disease or not. But with mental illness, it’s far more complicated—mental illnesses range in severity and symptoms, and some are directly related to physical or chemical changes within the body, while others have only minor physical connections and are more directly affected by behavioral issues. Because of the complicated nature of mental illness, it’s all too easy for people to assume that mentally ill patients are simply making up their ailments.

Alzheimer’s Disease

However, certain mental illnesses are, in fact, directly connected to physical issues or symptoms. For example, when an individual suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, the brain slowly begins to die as tissues and nerve cells deteriorate. Over the course of years, the cerebral cortex will actually shrink substantially. One study noted that brain shrinkage might begin as early as 10 years before a patient begins exhibiting symptoms, highlighting how medical imaging could be used to help diagnose mental illnesses. Furthermore, some researchers and medical professionals believe that bipolar disorders might be directly related to metabolic abnormalities. While some mental illnesses—like select personality disorders or anxiety-based issues—are often related to behavioral issues, there are a number of serious mental illnesses that are directly tied to physical issues, causes and symptoms. Therefore, mental illness should be seen as entirely genuine—and technology can help to highlight this point.

Brain imaging

MRI and other brain imaging technologies shouldn’t be used as the sole means of diagnosing a potential mental health issue. MRIs, for instance, can be used to potentially diagnosis a single, critical mental ailment, like Alzheimer’s, but mental health patients often exhibit a range of symptoms and receive multiple diagnoses that usually change over time—relying on one tool to accurately diagnose a patient can be tricky. However, MRIs shouldn’t be viewed as a miracle diagnosis imaging modality—instead, it should be viewed as a critical tool in the fight against mental illness stigmas. An MRI scan, for instance, can effectively document potent physical changes that occur when a patient suffers from a particular mental illness, efficiently portraying that mental illness is, in fact, concrete and directly related to changes that occur within the body.

With brain imaging technology, medical professionals can use scientific evidence in the fight against stigmas related to mental illness. By highlighting and documenting physical changes that do occur within patients’ brains or bodies, medical professionals can highlight that mental illness is entirely genuine and serious—not made up disorders or issues that can simply be solved by “staying positive.” Many mental health illnesses are directly linked to physical changes—such as brain deterioration—and devices like the MRI can be used to promote hard evidence, efficiently portraying that mental illnesses are authentic and critical health concerns.

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About the Author

Barry Southers, M.Ed.

Barry Southers, M.Ed., is an associate professor and the MRI program director in the University of Cincinnati’s Advanced Medical Imaging Technology program.

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