May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and organizations across the nation will be drawing attention to the various—and often-surprising—way mental illness affects people’s lives. This May, a number of new research findings highlight the need for increased understanding of, empathy for, and respect of people facing mental health issues. Consider the following.

Mental Illness is ‘Normal’

People with mental health issues have long felt that they are different from others. Indeed, discussions of mental illness tend to speak about “people with mental illness” as if they are a foreign group few of us ever encounter. The reality is that mental illness is so common—so common, in fact, that a recent study claims that it’s a life unmarred by mental illness that’s the real anomaly.

According to the study, which followed people ages 11-38 and tracked their mental health, a mere 17% avoided mental illness. Forty-one percent had a mental health condition that lasted for many years. Forty-two percent had a short-lived mental illness. This suggests that, sooner or later, mental illness becomes an issue for most people. Depression, anxiety, and substance abuse were the most common diagnoses in the study.

Gender Can Affect Mental Health Diagnoses

Many of us have heard that 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with autism, but the overwhelming majority of those children are boys. A new study suggests this may be because providers fail to recognize the signs of autism in girls. The reason? Gender-based empathy conditioning.

People with autism often appear to lack empathy or recognize social cues. According to the study, however, girls on the spectrum show outward signs of empathy. Researchers believe this is because gender conditioning to master social skills is much stronger in girls. So girls with autism may appear to understand social cues even when they don’t.

Worldwide, Depression is the Leading Cause of Disability

The leading cause of disability isn’t cancer or chronic pain, though public health campaigns might make you think otherwise. According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. What’s more, it’s held that place for many years.

Even more troubling, despite burgeoning awareness, the rate of depression is not getting better. Particularly in developing nations, people often do not receive treatment for symptoms of depression. And between 2005-2015, the rate of depression actually increased by 18%.

Mental and Physical Health are Inseparable

Media portrayals often talk about mental and physical health, or discuss how one supports the other. This isn’t anything new. Philosophers, scientists, and laypeople of all varieties have been separating the mind from the body for generations.

Research increasingly points to the link between the two. For example, some studies suggest that chronic inflammation may cause depression. Others have found that mental illness can affect physical health, or lead to symptoms of chronic pain. The role of exercise in fighting mental illness is well documented. People taking some chemotherapy drugs may be more vulnerable to depression, even when researchers control for the already depressing effects of having cancer. And a new study just linked consuming low-fat, rather than whole-fat, dairy to a lowered risk of depression.

The invisible line between the mind and body is imaginary. Our thoughts reside in the brain, and the brain lives in the body. It’s affected by what we eat, how we spend our time, and our overall health.

Environment Matters for Mental Health

Much discussion of mental health focuses on genetics, brain chemicals, and other biological phenomena. It’s true that mental illness is biological, but that does not mean that all cases of mental illness are hard-wired. The environment can affect the behavior of genes, as the emerging study of epigenetics is making ever more clear. Stressful and deprived environments can alter the way genes behave, triggering mental illness. For example, recent research has linked growing up with food insecurity to an increased risk of mental health difficulties.

The environment in which people grow up also teaches them how to handle everything from daily stress to serious trauma. People may learn depressive thinking from their parents, for instance, or they may experience trauma in early childhood that leaves them with lasting mental health difficulties.

Mental illness certainly has a biological component, but to believe that it is solely hard-wired and unavoidable is to believe that treatment doesn’t work. That’s not true. Treatment helps the brain re-learn new ways of processing information as it helps the client cope with difficult emotions. And just as the environment can shape people toward mental illness, treatment can help pull them away from it.

The goals of better understanding mental health diagnoses and improving societal empathy should not be limited to the month of May, but it's certainly a good time to refocus our efforts.

References

Bower, B. (2017, February 28). Long-lasting mental health isn't normal. Retrieved from https://www.sciencenews.org/article/long-lasting-mental-health-isnt-normal?mode=topic&context=49

Chemotherapy drug may increase vulnerability to depression. (2017, April 25). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/04/170425102546.htm

Girls are better at masking autism than boys. (2017, April 1). Retrieved from http://www.universiteitleiden.nl/en/news/2017/04/girls-are-better-at-masking-autism-than-boys

Low-fat dairy linked to lower tendency towards depression. (2017, April 18). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/04/170418114626.htm

Raison, C. L., & Miller, A. H. (2011). Is depression an inflammatory disorder? Current Psychiatry Reports, 13(6), 467-475. doi:10.1007/s11920-011-0232-0

Williams, J. (2017, April 05). Depression has increasingly become the leading cause of disability. Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/depression-around-world-leading-cause-disability-577591

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