The Politics, Stigma and Experience of Brain Disorders: A Blog Series

Image: Victor Habbick /

The holiday season is a good time to talk about brain disorders. The kind I’m talking about are more commonly referred to as mental illness, but I think that term detracts from the fact that depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, dementia and other such conditions arise in the brain. I think it allows us to consider them less important than “real” brain disorders, such as tumors and strokes.

Mental illnesses are too often tossed aside as conditions that take place in the mind. (Last I knew, the mind was in the brain, and the brain is a pretty important organ — I think you’ll agree.) I see people wearing pink ribbons for breast cancer and other colors for other diseases and rallying around them to raise money for research to eradicate these awful diseases. (And more power to these people.) But save for autism, I see little energy going into standing up for people suffering from stigmatized brain disorders that affect thoughts and emotions and that leave their hosts losing out to fulfilling their potential.

If it takes selfishness to motivate people to rally around a cause, then consider all that we miss out on — discoveries and advances in various fields that are left undone because these sufferers may not be able to function at the high rate they otherwise would. You can also think about your wallet, because the cost in lost productivity and therapeutic (and only weakly effective) measures ultimately cost us in terms of taxes or reduced profits. And if you think you are immune from developing such a condition, think again. In one study, nearly half (43 percent) of older Americans will have Alzheimer’s disease by age 85 — and that’s just one form of dementia.

Having a brain disorder leaves you vulnerable at any age, but having one when you’re a child or a senior citizen leaves you especially vulnerable.

It is true that there is research going on, but too often I see the same research being done again and again using antidepressants. However, a landmark paper published in JAMA Jan. 6, 2010, that reviewed nearly 30 years of studies found that antidepressants are no more effective than placebos (sugar pills) for those people with mild to moderate depression. (This is not to say come off your medication if you are taking it, but that research needs to be done outside of antidepressants.) Further, many of the psychotropic medications — drugs used to treat so-called mental health disorders — have serious side effects, including substantial weight gain, metabolic syndrome and tardive dyskinesia. Money is a factor, understandably. So it surprises me that funding is seemingly not being given to larger studies that would validate the findings of innovative small studies that have shown real possibilities for using inexpensive treatments, such as Tylenol to treat emotional pain (emotional pain is pain, after all — think heartbreak) and Vitamin B8 to treat obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

I chose the holidays to address these particular types of brain disorders, because many people feel depressed at this time of year. I’m hoping that feeling will give way to empathy long after your depression lifts with the promise of a new year.

For this series, I have interviewed former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, who has been an unrelenting crusader for people suffering from brain disorders, Emmy-award winning actress Patty Duke, who has bipolar disorder and who speaks about bipolar around the country, and former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, who has been a relentless fighter for the rights of people with brain disorders to have their diagnoses be covered by insurance like any other medical disorder and whose focus has now become understanding the etiology of brain disorders and changing the way we perceive brain disorders by looking at them through the eyes of our soldiers.

I’m placing links to their nonprofits below. I want to point out, though, that neither Mrs. Carter or her organization or Mr. Kennedy asked me to link to their websites, but I suspect they’d be pleased if you’d support their efforts.

Carter Center Mental Health Program
The Next Frontier

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