Day 106: Towards a new understanding of mental illness

In the U.S., one person commits suicide every 15 minutes. This number is twice that of homicides and higher than the number killed in road traffic accidents. 90% of all suicides are related a a mental illness; a wide spectrum of disorders including depression, anorexia, schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder.
This isnt a good news story for mental health. When we look at the other developments in medical care since the 1960s, we see statistics such as the 65% reduction in heart disease, or the 85% reduction in leukaemia mortality. What these success stories have in common is the presence of early detection and intervention programs.
To illustrate how this approach is lacking in mental health, Thomas Insel displays the MRI studies of children with schizophrenia. Normal development means a certain loss of grey matter from an early age; in children diagnosed with schizophrenia, this loss is rapid and overshoots the critical line for psychosis long before any behavioural symptoms are noticed.
Unfortunately we aren’t fully at the stage where early intervention can be implemented. A cruel trick of evolution is that we were given a brain with such sophisticated hardwiring we struggle to understand it ourselves. But more connections and abnormalities have been discovered in recent years. Healthcare professionals and researchers need to think about these pathways and work towards a future of improved detection.

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