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How Brain Imaging Can Be Used to Fight Mental Health Stigma


Oct. 5, 2016 Psychology Today

For example, during a 2004 survey of residents of Tarrant County in Texas, more than 40 percent believed that major depression is “caused by a lack of will power,” and more than half of those surveyed believed that schizophrenia could be the result of how a person was raised.

Due to these social stigmas, those afflicted with mental illness often avoid treatment—they assume that others will judge them for seeking aid, or that whatever ails them can be treated with a simple change in attitude. Interestingly, less than half of those afflicted with depression actively seek treatment. There are consequences to avoiding treatment: American adults with serious mental illness typically die 25 years earlier than other adults (due to untreated medical issues related to their mental illness), and more than 90 percent of children who die by suicide in the U.S. also suffer from some sort of mental ailment.

Social stigmas about mental illness need to change, and technology can help. Medical professionals can use medical imaging modalities, like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to measure and study physical and chemical changes that occur within afflicted brains. Using this technology, the medical community can highlight that mental illnesses are true illnesses—ones that exhibit physical symptoms that require professional treatment and not simply a change in emotions or attitude.

Mental Health vs. Physical Health

There are, of course, differences between mental and physical illness, and these differences often spur common stigmas regarding mental illness. For instance, people claim mental illnesses are “all in a person’s head” or “made-up.” For example, look at diabetes—a medical professional can test a person’s blood and determine concretely if a person has the disease or not. But with mental illness, it’s far more complicated—mental illnesses range in severity and symptoms, and some are directly related to physical or chemical changes within the body, while others have only minor physical connections and are more directly affected by behavioral issues. Because of the complicated nature of mental illness, it’s all too easy for people to assume that mentally ill patients are simply making up their ailments.

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