One of the most common misconceived ideas of mental illness is that it's a choice we make ourselves. Many believe that if there is no obvious reason for a change in our inner workings, it’s probably ‘nothing,’ and will eventually pass. Unfortunately, those people could not be more wrong. The term mental illness may sound scary, but it shouldn’t be. We are all human and we all have things that make us different. There is a difference between having a negative perspective, being an introvert, or being pessimistic, and being mentally ill. It is always possible to be optimistic and have a bright outlook on life, but for those with a mental disorder, it can be harder. Much harder.
Mental illnesses are not only limited to the more severe kinds such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or antisocial personality disorder, it also refers to anxiety, depression, and phobias -- illnesses people often look past. Mental disorders are conditions that affect your everyday thinking, mood, and behavior. They can result from a variation of psychological, biological, and environmental factors.
The most important thing for people to know is that it is not a choice. Our nervous system plays a large role in our daily functions. We have these neat chemicals inside of us called neurotransmitters. These messengers send signals with information from neuron to neuron throughout our body. Some examples of neurotransmitters are dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, and norepinephrine. Both an excess and deficit in these neurotransmitters can lead to the development of a mental illness. An excess of dopamine in our system is associated with schizophrenia. When endorphins are released, we tend to feel at ease, well, and it even helps reduce the intensity of pain. These neurotransmitters are typically associated with addiction, such as substance abuse. Serotonin is associated with mood, appetite, sexual desire, and impulsive/aggressive behaviors. A deficit in serotonin is linked to anxiety disorders, such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (O.C.D.). Norepinephrine is part of our fight-or-flight system, and helps to heighten arousal and alertness. Consequently, low levels may result in a feeling of mental fogginess, and a lack of interest in life.
There is a legitimate distinction between those who are pessimists and those who are mentally ill. There is a difference between mental health and mental illness. Mental health refers to our mental well-being. It refers to our ability to take what comes to us and deal with it appropriately and effectively. We all have our down days and obstacles, but what is important is how we choose to deal with them. Mental illness happens within our brains. It is not controlled by our own wants or needs. Nevertheless, contrary to popular belief, it is possible to have good mental health along with a mental illness. Many mental illnesses are episodic, meaning they come in waves of sorts. Someone may very likely not feel the same way constantly. Many people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (G.A.D.) have times of heightened anxiety along with times where they feel they have better health. However, it does not mean that the illness is not there or that they can choose how they feel.
As previously stated, mental illness is not a choice, but mental health is. Whether it is a more common disorder such as anxiety or phobias, or a more rare one such as schizophrenia or Dissociative Identity Disorder, we do not have the power to decide whether or not we have it. We cannot simply tell our brain to rewire itself to have the correct balance of chemicals. However, we can learn ways to safely and appropriately deal with what makes us different, and not let mental illnesses control us. To everyone on the outside, you play an important role as well. You can accept the reality that is mental illness and do your best to understand, to not place blame, to not accuse, to not attempt to invalidate feelings. You simply cannot know what it is like unless you are living in that person’s mind. Until then, try. Try to educate yourself on the importance of mental health and understanding mental disorders. It is slowly becoming a more accepted and prominent part of society, and it is crucial that we all are aware of its nature.