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  • Writer's pictureKristen Miller

Stop the Stigma

There has always been a stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness. Perhaps it's because we can't physically SEE signs & symptoms of mental illness. If someone is suffering from depression, they may have figured out a way to hide it so it doesn't manifest itself in outward physical symptoms. There are certainly people who look and act like they are depressed (low energy, crying, sleeping a lot, easily agitated), but oftentimes these physical signs are dismissed as someone not being able to handle life circumstances - it's "all in their head and they need to get over it." The problem with this logic is that there is a very real, very physical cause that CAN be seen by unwrapping layers of the brain and looking at these layers under a digital imaging machine. Below you can see brain imaging scans for a normal brain as related to four different mental illnesses: depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar disorder, and anxiety.

In these scans, different levels of brain activity are measured and show up in varying colors depending on the "health" of the brain. This is encouraging because this shows that there is something physically different in the brains of those suffering from mental illness. Let's take depression, for example. This article from Harvard University explains what physical elements within the brain lead to depression. In short, people suffering from depression:

  • Have "identified genes that make individuals more vulnerable to low moods,"

  • Have specific areas of the brain (amygdala, the thalamus, and the hippocampus) that are different than that of people who don't suffer from depression.

  • The hippocampus is smaller in depressed people (and the smaller the hippocampus, the more bouts of depression a person is likely to suffer from).

  • Neuron production in the hippocampus is sluggish compared to a normal individual's neuron production.

  • "Activity in the amygdala is higher when a person is sad or clinically depressed."

  • Problems in the thalamus incite bipolar disorder.

Additional details about nerve cell communication, neurotransmitters and their effects/implications on depression can be found in the article referenced above. But in the meantime, let's move on and discuss why this information is so important and encouraging. In 2004, the movie "Super Size Me" came out and shed light on the harmful effects of eating too much, eating processed foods that are high in saturated fat and refined sugars. At this time we already had physical education (PE) requirements in schools, and physical health has always been an important part of government-mandated education. PE programs in schools have been cut during times of decreased funding, but it has still been recognized that PHYSICAL health, PHYSICAL wellness is crucial to a child's development and overall success. Let's take a look at some data/statistics surrounding physical health in California:

Now let's take a look at some data/statistics surrounding mental health in California:

The following chart shows this data in staggering visual form:

So what?!? What does this mean?

The obesity rate of school-aged children is 20%, and students are REQUIRED to take PE classes. The mental health disorder rate of school-aged children is 49.5%, and students are not required to take any ME classes. While there are personal consequences and health-implications for being overweight/obese, this doesn't typically manifest itself in a way that harms other people. On the other hand, there are personal and potential societal consequences for untreated mental health disorders. While school shootings and/or gun violence are very drastic examples of societal consequences, these are direct examples of how untreated mental health disorders can affect people other than the individual suffering. Isn't it time we give mental health, mental education the focus it deserves? We need to stop the stigma, and start the ME Movement!

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