What a national conversation we’re having, around an issue very close to home: illness of the mental variety. We’re afraid of it, because we can’t see it, can’t touch it, can’t manipulate it to see where it hurts like we can for the other illnesses we’re used to.
We are a nation of fixers. If something is broken, fix it. Patch it up, immobilize it and let it heal. But what if we can’t see what’s broken? What if we can only tell by the way someone acts or how they respond? What if there is no way to pinpoint the injury or measure the severity? What if the injury is not structural, but functional? Is there really injury…or are they just making this up?
What I am describing, actually, is brain injury. Something I am up to my elbows in working with youth athletes, and the NFL is up to its pockets in with inquiries and law suits. We are being forced to see that the brain can be injured, its function impaired, and we can only tell this by spending time with the injured person. Currently, science does not have good tests to determine the extent of the injury, but thankfully the national conversation is attending to it. We’ve stopped looking the other way and pretending it doesn’t exist.
Like we still do with mental illness. We fear mental illness because we don’t know what to do about it. We have been pretending it’s “all in their minds.” In our minds, if they were just better, stronger people they could just get this inconvenient maladaptive thinking under control and forge on. But mental illness is not just “wrong-thinking.” It is dis-health. A disease of the functioning of the brain.
The first step toward addressing it is learning a bit about normal brain function. This is foreign to the average American, I’ve observed. We know there is “gray matter” and perhaps “white matter.” We know the brain’s approximate size and shape and folding characteristics. We know layman’s anatomy – from tv shows or books or perhaps a high school class. But that doesn’t even begin to tell the story of the huge connection of nerve cells sending electrical signals hither and yon at amazing speed, with amazing accuracy, and amazing consistency. Until they aren’t.
This is what happens in concussion. And this is what happens in mental illness. The circuitry and chemistry malfunctions, or perhaps better put, begins to function in a way that results in disruption in behavior, sensation and thinking. This is, after all, what our brains are designed to do.
Once we can think of brain function as a biological, chemical, and cellular issue, we can address it. People would not choose concussion or illness of any type, but it chooses them. And the first step toward helping them is to understand what it feels like to them, how it orients or dis-orients, what hurts. Not at first to “fix” but to help. Then the healing can begin.
As for me, I admit: mental illness scares me. But the more I understand it and the better acquainted with it I become, the less I fear it and the more I see I can do about it. Concussion is a disruption of brain function which needs to be recognized and treated. Mental illness is a pattern of brain function which needs to be recognized and treated.
We’re all in this together. It’s a national conversation. Let us heal.