MAY IS MENTAL HEALTH MONTH!
This May, one of the nation’s leading mental health nonprofits, Mental Health America, is leading a national movement of nonprofits, clinics, and advocacy organizations in a behemothic undertaking; May is Mental Health Month is an initiative to educate the public about the facts of mental health issues, while also fighting to beat back the devastating social stigmatization of mental illness that pervades our society. The misconceptions of certain mental health disorders consistently prevent patients from seeking the care they need, with some estimates reporting 56% percent of adults not receiving proper mental health services, and 60% of young people with major depression never getting any sort of treatment whatsoever. While some of this is due to economic factors that restrict access to resources, we really cannot overstate the necessity of building up the general public knowledge base of the basic facts. Should you choose to visit the Mental Health America webpage at mentalhealthamerica.net, you will see that Mental Health America is dedicating this awareness month to something they call Risky Business.
WHAT DO THEY MEAN BY “RISKY BUSINESS”?
Great question! Let’s just ask Mental Health America what they mean:
We believe it’s important to educate people about habits and behaviors that increase the risk of developing or exacerbating mental illnesses, or could be signs of mental health problems themselves.
Exactly! So while we (as a society) have indubitably made amazing progress in bringing many of the symptoms, treatment options, and consequences of common psychiatric and mood disorders into the public eye, we must also remember that mental illness does not exist in some kind of vacuum of despair, unaffected by surrounding circumstances. Mental illness could affect any or all of us, at some point in our lives. And all of us, in turn, could be affecting anyone around us! And, of course, mental illness is rarely monocausal – that is, a given mental illness can rarely be attributed to a single factor such as genetics or environmental stressors. Usually, a combination of environmental, cognitive, and behavioral factors conspire to create these perfect, internal storms that can ravage one’s self-esteem, capacity to rationalize, and/or ability to lead a healthy, functional life.
THAT’S WHERE RISKY BUSINESS COMES IN!
There is a national conversation happening this month about habits and behaviors that might put people at greater risk of mental illness. MindPath Care Centers has decided to participate with its own segment on mental health risks, starting with this week’s theme: Impulse Control – the ways in which addiction (of all kinds) can lead people down the path toward exacerbating or even acquiring a brand new mental illness!
When talking about addiction, the obvious first place to go is substance abuse – which is, in fact, a major contributor to depression and other maladies, as we’ve discussed more fully in past blog posts (AUGUST FOCUS: SUBSTANCE ABUSE AWARENESS). However, advances in neuroscience have uncovered an increasing amount of evidence to show that the human brain may, in fact, be wired for addiction in general, manifesting with internet use, social media, gambling, television, sex, pornography, eating, exercise, even shopping! In response to certain activities, our brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine to make us feel pleasure, and all of the aforementioned activities are capable of giving our brains major dopamine hits.
IS THIS ALWAYS A PROBLEM?
Of course not! The ability to feel pleasure is one of the most important motivators for human existence. Even altruism – the little rush you feel when you hold the door open for someone, or donate to charity – releases dopamine. That’s why doing good can feel so good! As time goes on, however, we tend to become desensitized to repeated habits, and we regulate our dopamine levels. This is when our desire for the pleasure response, coupled with the ease of access to a million different avenues by which to awaken that response, becomes a “problem”.
Well, let’s say, for example, that you buy a lottery ticket at your local gas station. For some of us, buying a single lottery ticket has relatively few consequences, apart from a cold lesson in probability. But if your particular brain is wired to reward your purchase with a little bit of dopamine – giving you even the tiniest thrill – you are likely to purchase another one. Now, after a week of failed lottery tickets, your brain might start to realize that buying lottery tickets has just become a “way of life” for you and will lower the dopamine levels. After all, you don’t need to feel that much pleasure simply for going about your daily habits. So maybe you start to get the sense that $5 lottery tickets just aren’t doing it for you anymore (although you’ve already spent about $50). So what do you do? You buy one hundred dollars worth of lottery tickets, or perhaps you seek out a higher stakes gambling situation. And your dopamine spikes again, because one hundred dollars is a lot of money, and you gain that excitement back. For awhile. But then the desensitization starts again, and the stakes must be raised even more to get that buzz back. They aren’t kidding when they same that gambling addictions can be life-ruining! Some statistics day that 15 % of Americans gamble at least once per week, and more than 6 million adults qualify as “gambling addicted”!
HOW DOES THIS RELATE BACK TO MENTAL HEALTH?
Even when it just comes to the gambling example, there are myriad ways in which gambling addiction can impact or involve mental illness. For example, the people who are most at risk for gambling addiction are people who are easily bored and people with low-self esteem, both of which can be symptomatic of many mental maladies, including depression, anxiety, bipolar, borderline personality, and ADHD – to name but a few. Teenagers are most at risk for gambling addiction, in part to low-self esteem can run rampant in adolescent years, particularly when teens are untreated for a cognitive disorder and aren’t taken seriously.
OKAY, ENOUGH WITH THE GAMBLING EXAMPLE…
Let’s broaden the conversation. Again, even a cursory scan of Mental Health America’s “Risky Business” initiative will provide a number of disturbing statistics related to compulsion and addiction. There are far too many to list here, but here are two further examples of addictive behavior with proven links to mental health syndromes and disorders:
● Sexual compulsive disorder. 5-8% of people have this. Besides the attendant shame, guilt and anxiety that this can cause, there is a mountain of evidence linking uncontrollable sexual compulsions back into mental illness. Hypersexuality and hypercomulsions are both staples of bipolar-induced mania. Additionally, 83% of sex addicts report addiction to substances, gambling, and other destructive behaviors, lending strong evidence to the claim that, once addicted to one thing, a person is prone to become addicted to more. 38% of sex addicts have an eating disorder. 58% struggle with depression at some point in their lives. And folks with sexual addiction are at a higher risk of suicide than the general population.
● Internet Addiction. The internet is so ubiquitous in America that what qualifies as “addiction” can be hard to define, and there is still no official diagnosis for “internet addiction”. However, scientific studies have shown compelling evidence for a correlation between unhealthy amounts of screen time and certain mental diagnoses, including depression, anxiety, suicidality, OCD, and even bipolar disorder. The internet also has an enabling quality, where it allows easy access to online gambling, pornography, and online marketplaces (for compulsive shoppers), thus enhancing the potential of all sorts of other addictions.
The evidence is clear: our day-to-day business has a serious impact on our quality of life. When certain daily habits become compulsions, they can have ruinous consequences. Rather than sit in judgment of those who engage in compulsive behavior, we must understand that we are all at risk of becoming addicted to even the most mundane, pleasurable activities, and must end the stigmatization of addiction so that anyone affected can seek the help they need.