Friday, December 24, 2010

Are we there yet? Not hardly

So where are we in dealing with mental health and brain-based illnesses as we enter the 11th year of the 21st century? Pretty far from good, in my opinion.

The best single summary from 2010 is "Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis" by Rosalynn Carter, who has been a blessing to those with mental illnesses for 35 years. After giving some chilling facts about the number of mentally ill people in prison (40 percent of people with serious mental illness end up in contact with law enforcement and the justice system at some point) and what happened to the stabilized mentally ill after Katrina when they could not get their medicine (can you even imagine?), she ends with hope: research and recovery. Here's Rosalynn Carter talking more about this.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 95% of what we know about the brain was discovered in the past 20 years. Hopes for a single-shot cure for some of the illnesses have deteriorated in recent years, but the research is pointing the way, especially toward early discovery and intervention to prevent the most severe brain damage.

In that light, the journal Biological Psychiatry has reported that simple brain scans can help to predict the onset of schizophrenia in people ages 16 to 25 who have no symptoms but do have a family history of the disease. Schizophrenia, which affects 1 of every 100 people, is associated with a dramatic reduction in brain tissue. Everyone has brain tissue shrinkage beginning in early adulthood. (Surprise!) But the people who will eventually get schizophrenia have this shrinkage at an accelerated rate, concentrated in the parts of the brain that control personality, decision-making and social behavior.  More about this is found here.

So, if you or your children are at risk of schizophrenia, you apparently can now find out whether it is en route. (Frankly, I'm not real sure that I'd want to know.)  On the positive side, early knowledge can lead to early intervention . Young people who are treated immediately during their first psychotic episode generally respond and some never become ill again.  The longer it goes, the worse it gets, evidently. So, on that cheery note ...

Rosalynn Carter closes her book by talking about the true needs of the mentally ill: a home, a job, a friend and the respect due them as human beings who have, through no fault of their own, a serious illness. These things bring, to borrow a phrase, the audacity of hope. With this, people with mental illness can participate in their own recovery. Hopefully we won't have to wait until the 22nd century to see it happen.

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