Mental illness is often referred to as an invisible illness. Many of the people who call mental illness invisible do so from a place of caring and an aim to spread awareness. Emily Torchiana, founder of mental health awareness organization The Invisible Illnesses, commented on her reasoning for the organization.
“Just because symptoms aren’t physically there when looking at a person struggling does not mean they are not struggling internally. I wish people understood that there’s more to a person than what you see physically,” Torchiana told Talkspace.
Though the term is frequently used to advocate for a respect of mental illness as a disease, it perpetuates the fallacy that mental illness is indeed invisible. While the intentions behind this term are often good, they are completely false. You can see the symptoms and causes of mental illness, just as clearly as you can see the symptoms and causes for a cold or the flu.
For many, describing those who have mental illnesses as sick or impaired can feel discriminatory. While it’s true that we shouldn’t judge people for having mental illnesses, just like we don’t judge cancer patients for having cancer, it is still an illness, and something has gone wrong to cause it. A lot of what causes mental illness can be found in the brain, either through the release of neurotransmitters or through deformed brain structures.
Brain scans can find a lot of easily identifiable differences between brains with a mental illness and healthy brains. For example, those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder have a considerably smaller hippocampus due to neuronal cell death. Patients with Major Depressive Disorder were found to have thinner cortical gray matter than controls in the orbitofrontal cortex, anterior and posterior cingulate, insula and temporal lobes. Studies between pairs of twins where only one twin was diagnosed with Schizophrenia have found small anterior hippocampi and enlarged lateral and third ventricles in the Schizophrenia twin.
Neurotransmitters are also a major contributor to an unhealthy brain. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that your brain releases. They can affect anything from emotion and behavior to sensing cold and hunger. The neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine are often associated with MDD, with many patients seeming to lack dopamine levels or needing an increase of SSRI’s. Neurotransmitters aren’t always that simple however, and in patients with Huntington’s disease, their illness could be due to reductions in the neurotransmitters GABA and glutamate, but could also be caused by a gradient of amino acid loss. It is hypothesized that those with Alzheimer’s could be suffering from a deficit in excitatory amino acid neurotransmission, and it is possible that a way to delay symptoms could stem from cholinesterase inhibitors.
There are also symptoms that can be seen without the use of brain scans and MRI’s. Many people with Anxiety feel heartburn, have trouble breathing, or get dizzy. Those with Depression often experience insomnia, or hypersomnia and get frequent migraines. Those with PTSD can experience hypoxia and heart attacks. Those with ADD or ADHD can experience insomnia and sensitivity to light and sound.
There are not any cures for mental illness, but medication can help in the same way that there are not any cures for HIV or AIDS, in which we have advanced medication enough to delay symptoms or force the virus into remission. While not everything that can be found in brain scans and through measuring neurotransmitters is 100 percent proven, it can be very reassuring to those with mental illness to know that anything at all can be measured.
I grew up hearing that mental illness was invisible, so I wasn’t looking for symptoms because all I had been told was that mental illness can only be found in my head. I also wasn’t seeking diagnoses because I was told there isn’t a definitive test for mental illness. I was also completely against taking medication, because I was worried that the drugs would harm me if I didn’t really have a mental illness like I thought I did. These reasons are probably why I didn’t go to therapy until I was 19 years old despite symptoms starting when I was 13.
To me, it seemed pointless to receive help for something that couldn’t even be proven that I had. I have always believed in things that can be seen. I’ve always been fascinated by psychology and hated philosophy. It was after I started my interest in bio-psychology and neuroscience that I started going to therapy, because I knew that there was actually something medically wrong with me and that it could be measured, calculated, and possibly remedied.
I suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Mild Depression. This could be due to an excess of cortisol causing neuronal cell death in my hippocampus, or due to the inability of my hippocampus to inhibit CRH release. I’m a very logical person, and I’ve always wanted to know why things are the way they are. I grew up believing there were no answers for the way I was, and that my illness was invisible, and therefore, could just be me overreacting.
Knowing that my illness isn’t invisible has helped me know I can overcome it, because now I can see the problem. Demons are a lot easier to fight if you can see them. I hope those of you who fight mental illness know that your problems are not invisible. You don’t have to get a brain scan to prove that you have them, but just knowing that you can is half the battle.