Are the brain and mind two sides of the same coin?
In the face of complexity, some seek simplicity, believing that the brain and the mind are two sides of one coin.
Furthermore, some believe that by young adulthood, the brain-mind identity is more static than changeable. Some may see a ‘mental illness’ diagnosis as fixed, not flexible. The ‘broken brain’ and ‘chemical imbalance’ concepts are popular today. First-line interventions to calm the distressed mind are predominantly biochemical (psychotropic medications). Electromagnetic interventions: ECT (‘electroshock’), TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation), and Neuro-feedback, etc. may be used to change the brain and genetic assessment/alterations may be sought (this is still in development).
This ‘change the brain to change the mind’ approach assumes that the key to calming the distressed mind is to fix the ‘broken brain’ (the other side of the coin).
These first-line interventions may indeed add value and offer necessary elements for the healing process, especially when psychosis is present or when the symptoms of mental illness are life threatening. However, these interventions are seldom, if ever, sufficient. They are also not a ‘cure all’ for every mental illness.
Consider broader healing interventions that address the mind directly or holistically. Rather than just biological, these are psycho/social/spiritual supports. Some of these supports are psychotherapy, nutritional modification, acupuncture, exercise, expressive arts therapies, yoga, mindfulness training, and milieu therapy, etc.
These, too, should not be viewed narrowly or with a ‘one size fits all’ perspective. It is better to consider how a comprehensive, individualized array of techniques and interventions can be assembled. It is also better to optimize, not overuse any of them.
Are mental health diagnoses helpful?
I appreciate that mental health experts are trained to observe how a patient expresses his or her emotions, describes distressing hallucinations or exhibits inappropriate or unhealthy behaviors. The expert aggregates and aligns these observations with a diagnosis from the DSM-V. A diagnosis such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder may be named. This naming can be useful, because it helps the practitioner to prescribe helpful interventions and develop shared understandings with the patient and with the family.
Is a mental health diagnosis permanent? What is the cause of mental illness?
Unlike a diagnosis of cancer where one can observe a tumor, a diagnosis of mental illness does not offer anything like a ‘tumor’ to point to. Biochemical interventions like medications can indeed help to calm or suppress symptoms but that does not mean that they can correct an assumed ‘chemical imbalance’.
There is no observable ‘broken brain’. Research to find the assumed ‘brokenness’ has been unsuccessful. There are also still no observable genetic defects causally linked to mental illness.
The hope that science can reveal helpful approaches should be kept alive. Our experience, however, is that these approaches are not a ‘fix’. Families are encouraged to dialogue with experienced psychiatrists and other practitioners, especially those with clinical wisdom that is honed by the laboratory of daily life.
We can indeed make good use of a diagnosis but should also be careful. For example, if one has 5 of 9 symptoms of schizophrenia, does that mean that the other 4 symptoms will necessarily emerge at some point? No. If one has a certain set of symptoms related to any diagnosis, does that mean that those symptoms are permanent? No.
Recovery is possible and probable with the right kind of support and hard work by all. The brain is ‘plastic’ and changeable. Symptoms may not fully disappear but many can learn to live with them and not be overwhelmed. Despite having a mental illness, one can indeed learn to achieve and sustain a fulfilled and functional life. Virgil Stucker and Associates are committed to keeping this hope alive.
At Virgil Stucker and Associates, we believe that the totality of understanding mental illness must take into account life experience, environment, opportunities, and all the various things that make us human, which might interact with certain underlying neurobiological processes that may be disrupted in the brain.
Therapeutic wisdom shows us that the mind is greater than and spans beyond the brain. Mental wellness can improve when the mind and the heart, as well as the social, emotional, and purposeful parts of someone's life, work together. We also know that a healthy relationship between minds (‘shared minds’ in families and community) helps to improve mental wellness by replacing loneliness, hopelessness and helplessness with a sense of belonging, purpose and empowerment.
Life is broad and rich with relationships. We are simply not reducible to a set of biochemical reactions. We are more than that and should always reach beyond the diagnosis, keeping the dream of a life with more joy, than pain, alive.