*** Special Report For Mental Illness Awareness Week ***
Despite recent work by President Carter’s wife Rosalyn, and daily reports of the prevalence of mental illness, unfortunately still many people associate a negative stigma with the often mysterious conditions resulting from the brain. Yet, we are all susceptible to mental illness.
During this first week of October, which is “Mental Illness Awareness Week,” I would hope people realize this year — more than any other — we have new hope for the treatment of depression, and other mental illnesses. But so many do not seek help due to stigma and misunderstanding of their conditions. Many patients have told me, “I did not seek help because I thought it was just psychological….that it was just because of my situation.”
But, we now know that genetics and other biological processes contribute to one’s vulnerability for depression and other illnesses. For example, researchers have found that a certain gene that regulates, the catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) enzyme, makes one more sensitive to trauma and more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Other genetic variations also may contribute to being at risk for PTSD.
Just a few weeks ago, one of my former professors heading a group of researchers announced genetic evidence pointing to multiple subtypes of schizophrenia (Uncovering the Hidden Risk Architecture of the Schizophrenias: Confirmation in Three Independent Genome-Wide Association Studies. American Journal of Psychiatry).
All in all, these data clearly show the mental illness is not a matter of choice. And, virtually anyone can be vulnerable. Rather, it results from a complex interplay between genetics, other biological risk factors, and experiences.
What are these other biological risk factors? It might surprise you to learn that often they are viruses. Recently, I published some research showing the relationship between viruses of the Herpes family (which include cytomegalovirus, Epstein-Barr virus, and Herpes 6 among others) and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Moreover, all of the patients in this retrospective case series had been referred to my practice with a diagnosis of treatment-resistant depression or mood disorder. This paper was recently summarized on a national CFS website.
So during this week, and every week of the year, remember that mental illness is not a matter of choice. A person cannot just pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Moreover, traditional psychiatric medications may not be the answer. Successfully treating depression may require an understanding of the genetics, determining if infectious agents are present, and treating these agents effectively.