Keywords: mental illness, mental health, stigma
The rising incidence of mental illness in Western nations has been well documented. One factor impeding the development of effective countermeasures to the social and economic threats posed by that rise is the persistent stigma with which mental illness is associated: unlike illnesses of organs like the heart or lungs those relating to the 'mind' are still predominantly a taboo topic. Arguably, that situation refl ects a lack of understanding of mental illness and its underlying causes. As such the current environment of brain-based scientifi c discovery affords mental health professionals an unprecedented opportunity: one in which effective public education about those discoveries should help systematically deconstruct the mental illness stigma.
Placed in its historical context, persistent public misunderstanding of mental illness is unsurprising: throughout human history the inner workings of the mind have remained shrouded in mystery. In fact only recently has that situation changed in any sustained and meaningful sense. The advent of high resolution in-vivo measurement techniques like functional magnetic resonance imaging and magneto electroencephalography, combined with reversible lesion techniques such as transcranial magnetic stimulation, have seen modern science take unprecedented strides towards unlocking the complex relationship between brain and behaviour.
Yet even so, brain science in its present form in still in its infancy: the promise of modern approaches has yet to be fully realised with many aspects of the brain/behaviour relationship remaining poorly understood. In that respect mental illness is no exception: while advances in understanding have occurred and treatment protocols developed accordingly, there is no doubt that the painstaking process of systematically unpacking the precise causes of mental illness in all its forms will be the work of years and decades to come.
As mental health professionals are acutely aware, the reason progress is slow relates to the simple fact that the organ ultimately responsible for all behaviour - the human brain - is one of staggering complexity. When even a seemingly simple act such as unlocking the car door is predicated on the activity of millions of interconnected neurons each communicating through different chemical messengers, the magnitude of the task becomes apparent. In fact, such is the complexity of the system that developing an understanding of the human brain and all its functions is widely considered one of the last great scientifi c frontiers. It's no exaggeration to say that sending man to Mars is, comparatively speaking, a simple undertaking.
Within that context, there are nonetheless at least two human brain 'fundamentals' that modern scientifi c advances have served to confi rm. One is that the relationship between the brain and behaviour is causal. That is, the brain is the engine room of all aspects of how we interact with the world. The second it is that just like the heart and lungs, the human brain is an organ - a system of fl esh and blood that performs a range of tasks necessary for maintaining life. In that sense, and in spite of its breathtaking structural and functional complexity, the brain is no more nor less mysterious than any other of the human body's parts.
Two is that just like the heart or lungs, the brain is susceptible to disease. That is, by consequence of a complex interplay between an individual's environment and his or her genes, the organ can malfunction. We now know that sometimes the outcome is the sort of illness or disease traditionally considered to be 'physical' in nature, and that sometimes mental illness is the result. To belabour that vital point, it is now clear that mental illness should properly be understood as arising from particular types of physiological, brain-based 'malfunctions'.
The implications of those two facts for public perceptions of mental illness are considerable. …