A peek into the past suggest that the earlier thinkers were oblivious of the causes of mental illness. Galen proposed it was due to a ‘humoral imbalance’ and Aristotle attributed it to a ‘badness of the spirit’. These and other similar accounts prove that for far too long, we thought mental health disorders had esoteric causes. That is why the development of biological psychiatry as a field became even more significant.
We developed a better understanding of the workings of the brain and we were able to attribute mental illnesses to abnormalities in the brain. Decades on, however, our understanding has not translated into a cure. We are still as far away from the magic bullet as we were during the dark ages. The big question remains, ‘will we ever solve mental illness?’
It is not due to a lack of effort
All over the world, there are countless institutes of mental health; facilities that are dedicated to researching the causes and a possible cure for mental illness. While considerable progress has been made, it appears the best we can do for now is ‘manage’ the cases. The earlier promise is gradually fading away and we are coming to terms with the fact that maybe this is one of the wars we cannot win, just maybe.
Admittedly, today’s mental health discourses are a far cry from what obtained earlier. The revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980 served as the blueprint that dictated the direction of further discourses. Cryptic language and unproven theories were eliminated from the revised manual and mental health symptoms were broken down into consistent, understandable parts. Importantly, the new manual brought some much-needed uniformity. Physicians and therapists were able to categorize these disorders and agree, at least to an extent, on the treatment approaches.
Learning from our failures
One of the major lessons that can be drawn from our current failure is the diverse nature of mental health illnesses. Patients with the same disease present with varying symptoms and, quite often, they possess no shared biology. The implication of this diversity is that individuals are better treated on a case-by-case basis. But this does not bode well for finding a cure. Our hope currently lies in the expression of certain genes as it relates to mental health disorders. While research into heredity and mental health has run into countless blind alleys, it’s still the field that holds the most promise.
Even in cases where genetic causes have been identified, it cannot be contested that genetics is hardly ever chiefly responsible for mental illness. Environmental factors and experiences also play an important role. Researchers are also turning into this field in the hope of figuring out our the experiences of patients, before and after a mental health disorder shape their healing process.
The new direction
A major loophole in the approach to finding a cure for mental illnesses is the chasm between researchers and the patients. Patients are traditionally uncooperative and this greatly stalls progress. As opined by Dr. Steven Hyman, the director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of M.I.T and Harvard, “There had to be far more give and take between researchers and the people suffering from these disorders. The research cannot happen without them, and they need to be convinced it’s promising.’’
Asides getting patients to cooperate with researchers, everyone is encouraged to have conversations about mental health. Patients, relatives, researchers, experts, policy makers, and all stakeholders are encouraged to be open about mental health discourses. While talking is unlikely to beget a cure, the belief that mental health illnesses are not esoteric means there is little need to demonize them. And the more we talk about them, the more comfortable the patients feel in their own skin.
Maybe we’ll never find a cure
Some are of the opinion that we are unlikely to have any major scientific breakthrough in the field of mental illness. And they might be right. As mentioned earlier, mental illnesses are quite diverse. So, the idea of a magic bullet might be nothing more than wishful thinking. The best we can do is to continue to discover drugs that would continue to help sufferers manage their illnesses better. But we should remember that some of the drugs available do a pretty good job. However, many patients have issues with compliance. In fact, a good number of mental health patients believe they are fine. Even a magic bullet would not convince them they are not.
Whatever happens, the best we can do is trust medical science to figure things out. In the meantime, we simply have to encourage people struggling with mental illness, letting them know that they matter and we would always look out for them. Any form of stigmatization at all should be shunned. They are people like us and you can bet they would give anything to be free of mental illness.