Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘autism’

Mental Illness or Autism?

The other day I inadvertently created a firestorm on facebook. Someone posted: Question: What makes schizophrenia a mental illness and autism not a mental illness? Answer: Politics, advocacy, and marketing.

I didn’t understand the thrust of the post, so I asked a question: “Are you saying that autism should be classed as a mental illness or that schizophrenia shouldn’t be?”

Then the floodgates open. There were over 100 responses to the post, of which mine was just one. They ranged from “autism is not a mental illness” to “autism is a form of mental illness” to “autism is a developmental disorder” to “schizophrenia and autism are both neurodivergent conditions.” Few, if any, seemed to address the original question of politics, advocacy, and marketing. (I have no knowledge whether any of the responders were medical or other professionals; persons with one or the other diagnosis; or family members of those with the, let’s call them conditions for now.)

Some people responded that the term “mental illness” should not be used, because it was inaccurate, or stigmatizing, or both. They found the phrase “mental illness” offensive. “Mental disease” was suggested as a better alternative, though for the life of me I can’t see much difference between them. To me, “illness” and “disease” mean basically the same thing. One can go down the rabbit hole here. Is MS a condition or an illness or a disease or a disorder? Is a broken leg a condition? It’s certainly not an illness – unless it gets infected – or a disease. Someone said that mental illness implied a permanent condition, rather than a challenge that can be treated. My bipolar disorder can certainly be treated, and is. But it is also a permanent condition.

Some of the phraseology that was most often used to define autism were neurodivergent, neurological condition, developmental disorder, neurological condition that often presents with mental illness like anxiety. But neurodivergent was also used to described schizophrenia, which was sometimes linked to brain anatomy and genetics. Some classed them both as “disorders of the brain.”

Others pointed out societal or functional differences or other definitions – schizophrenia can be used in court for a “diminished capacity defense”; autism is listed in the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, considered by many the gold standard for definitions and symptoms of mental illnesses); the age of onset for autism is three, or three to 18, while schizophrenia is usually diagnosed at 18 and over, but not always; autism used to be called childhood schizophrenia; schizophrenia is caused by over-pruning of the neurons, which disrupt the normal growth of the brain; ASD could be a result of disruptions in normal brain growth. Someone pointed out that with both autism and schizophrenia, there are different levels of severity.

Various books and articles were cited. Challenging questions were asked: Do those who insist that autism is not a mental illness think having a mental illness is shameful, whereas having autism is not shameful or perhaps is not an illness at all. Others considered treatments: Medications can help with mental illnesses but are not generally prescribed for autism. People with one or the other condition do not qualify for treatment.

And some responses were entirely cryptic: B careful what you wish 4.

But back to the original post. I think the poster was trying to say that the autism community did a better job of spreading the word about the condition and thereby defining it, in this case as not-a-mental-illness.

And it’s true that – whatever you think of them as an organization – Autism Speaks has gotten the word out about autism. They excel at awareness (of themselves as well as autism). They organize huge charity walks. They have numerous TV commercials. Their puzzle piece symbol – again, whatever you think of it – is for many the easily identifiable graphic that says, “autism.”

Mental illness, whatever you prefer to call it, does not have that same kind of presence in the public eye. For one thing, there are so many different conditions that it’s hard to choose one to spotlight. Depression seems to be the condition-du-jour. The conversations around it are that anyone can have it and there is help available, which is all well and good. But the vast majority of these messages come from people who are selling or associated with medications or call-a-therapist lines – money-making operations. Nor do the ads always get depression right, many making it seem like no worse than a mild hangover.

SMI (serious mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia) are only now entering the public discourse, and again, mainly for advertisements of drug treatments. The ones for schizophrenia seldom discuss any symptoms of the disorder – they just show a happy person playing a guitar or some such desired outcome. They don’t convey much about the condition of schizophrenia, its symptoms, how it affects families, or much of anything else.

As for other psychiatric conditions, there is much silence. PTSD is discussed, but only of the “wounded warrior” variety, not the kind that can result from other traumas. Anorexia/bulimia, OCD, social and generalized anxiety, narcissism, and the whole spectrum of personality disorders get little to no screen time.

There is growing discussion about things society – and especially first responders – should know or do about people with psychiatric conditions, but those are largely at the talking stage and a few pilot projects. When the subject hits TV, it is usually triggered (sorry) by an individual incident and is more likely to involve unorganized protests rather than coordinated efforts to address the larger problem. And at times, it seems that no one is listening.

Especially to the people with “forgotten” mental conditions – those that don’t have drug treatments or celebrity proponents or coordinated responses. It’s not that I think autism doesn’t deserve the attention it gets – though clearly there are more discussions to be had around the subject. I just sometimes despair of getting attention for mental illnesses.

But to go back again to the original post, mental illness and autism are two different things that cannot be easily compared. But it is true that autism, at the moment, has an organization with a loud voice behind it. Mental health, not so much.

All in Our Heads

Well, mental disorders probably are mostly in our heads, or at least our brains (and genes), but I keep seeing news features that “offer hope” for new diagnostic tools and treatments that “may someday” alleviate the suffering.

Here’s an example from the University of Pennsylvania:

Many factors, both genetic and environmental, have been blamed for increasing the risk of a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Some, such as a family history of schizophrenia, are widely accepted. Others, such as infection with Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite transmitted by soil, undercooked meat and cat feces, are still viewed with skepticism. A new study used epidemiological modeling methods to determine the proportion of schizophrenia cases that may be attributable to T. gondii infection. The work suggests that about one-fifth of cases may involve the parasite.

Great. I am sure that schizophrenics will be comforted by the thought that their problems are caused by brain parasites and cat poop.

I noticed that the study showed that only 20 percent of schizophrenia “may” involve the parasite. What about the other 80 percent? Are those cases caused by some other parasite? And how will the parasites be detected? Blood test? Brain biopsy? Could be a world of horrors there for the already mentally unstable. And, perhaps most important, will real-world results back up the computer simulations?

Schizophrenia is far from the only illness being studied. Bipolar disorder and our old pal depression come in for their share of lab work too. USA Today recently reported on a procedure that might help with depression:

The treatment — transcranial magnetic stimulation — was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2008 for the treatment of patients with medication-resistant depression.

Magnets generate a directed, pulsed magnetic field — similar to an MRI in strength — to the prefrontal cortex, the front part of the brain behind the forehead. The magnetic fields induce small electrical currents, which encourage a mood-lifting chemical reaction in the brain.

The treatment is daily, for four to six weeks. If the patient improves enough, the treatment is then provided as a periodic booster.

Never mind that it’s entirely subjective when a patient has improved “enough” or even shows anything other than a placebo effect. And never mind the effects of having 42 MRI-strength treatments in a row.

Apparently scientists and insurance companies are battling it out on the money front (there’s a surprise).

Plus, as always, there are nay-sayers:

The National Institute of Mental Health describes the treatment as effective for some patients, but notes that studies of its efficacy have been “mixed.” The American Psychiatric Association’s guidelines for depression treatment states the procedure conveys “relatively small to moderate benefits.”

To the desperate, any potential “cure” or even palliative treatment eventually seems worth a try. I should know. I came that close (imagine several millimeters here) to having a go at electro-convulsive therapy (ECT). Formerly know as shock treatment.

The thing is, you only hear about theories that “might” be correct and treatments that “may” help. Studies are hardly ever published that say, “You know that treatment we said was going to relieve the suffering of millions? Turns out, not so much.” If the general public even gets to see the negative results, they may still cling to the hope offered by the earlier reports.

Just look at the anti-vaxxers. It has been repeatedly proved that childhood vaccines do not cause autism. The experiment that reported that finding was a fraud and the author (Andrew Wakefield) has been discredited – investigated and found guilty of “four counts of dishonesty and 12 involving the abuse of developmentally challenged children.” Basically, he’s been kicked out of medicine altogether and given the Lifetime Achievement in Quackery award by the Good Thinking Society. (I’m not making that up.)

And yet epidemics of measles and other deadly diseases continue to rise as parents yield to fear and refuse to have their children vaccinated.

I’m not trying to say that a parasite doesn’t cause some cases of schizophrenia or that magnetic therapy will never relieve anyone’s depression.

I’m just saying that if those theories are proved false, we’ll likely never hear about it from the popular press.

 

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