Today’s blog post is born out of a feeling of frustration. This story is not unique, and not even uncommon:
A few days ago, a young man came to my clinic seeking a second opinion. He had endured abuse and neglect throughout his early life, and when he got old enough to understand his own feelings, he realized he never feels well (emotionally). So the young man went to a doctor, and he was given medications and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which he was told he had inherited from his parents. When the meds didn’t help, he went back to the doctor. He got other pills. When those didn’t work, he was offered other meds, again and again. After years of failed treatment, he decided to seek a second opinion.
Some mental health symptoms spark from neurobiology in the brain. Bipolar illness type I, for instance, involves cycles of high energy, decreased sleep, and extreme upswings in mood coupled with extreme downs and lows of energy and mood that often cannot be controlled without medication. Even this is not an absolute, though. Life stressors can bring about symptoms. Social support can be part of the resolution.
Mental health symptoms or conditions are not simply cured with pills. Some problems stem directly from psychosocial stressors or spiritual distress. Even within the bipolar spectrum of diagnosis, some mood cycles in bipolar type II or atypical bipolar respond best to psychosocial support, or counseling. Medication may not be very helpful for some symptoms, or even the primary treatment.
Professionals continue to talk about the search for genetic links in mental health conditions, and to talk about “chemical imbalances,” but what about:
Navigating tough stages of growth (like moving out and starting adulthood)
Grief and loss
The young man referenced above has lost years of well-being to a neurobiologic wild goose chase. There won’t ever be a pill that rids him of 100% of his distress. He needs something else. He has to grieve a life of trauma, and try to learn that he is no longer unsafe, as he was in childhood. Prescription pills might be useful tools along the way, but he doesn’t simply have an inherited brain disease to be cured with medication.
Mental health care involves care of the whole person, not just pills to change the biology of the brain.
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