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Susan J. Watson, MD


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“Open Your Mind: Mental Illnesses are Brain Disorders.”

-National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI)

St. Francis Behavioral HealthThe National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) addresses mental illnesses as “developmental brain disorders with genetic and environmental factors leading to altered circuits and altered behavior”. Keep in mind that mental health and behavioral health are interchangeable terms. Mental illness, according to NIMH, range from Autism to Schizophrenia. Even though the onset of mental illnesses can begin in childhood, it is often not diagnosed until an individual is much older, thus preventing early treatment. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders –IV- Text Revisions (DSM-IV-TR), defines mental disorders as “a clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual and that is associated with present distress or disability or with significant increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom”.

A common misconception is that all people described as having the same mental disorder are alike in all important ways. Although all the people described as having the same mental disorder have at least the defining features of the disorder, they may well differ in other important respects that may affect clinical management and outcome.

Our brain controls all of our body’s activities, from sleeping, eating, and every day activities to learning functions and memories. Scientists now think the brain even controls how we react to medications. The main working unit in the brain is the neuron. The neuron carries information to and from the brain, much like a wire carries an electric circuit. The neurons trigger the brain’s neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers of the brain. These messages then travel to appropriate receptors, which could be another neuron or muscle or gland cells. The connection between neurons and the receptors are called synapses. Information is processed through synapses. A precise chemical balance and interaction enables synaptic transmission, and is required to make full use of the senses—how the brain perceives what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch. An abnormal change of any kind (brain injury, virus, reaction to drugs, and alteration of chromosomes) may cause a person to hallucinate, to have delusions, or to feel suicidal or euphoric.

For parents, the key to handling mental disorders of children is to recognize the problem and seek appropriate treatment. These disorders have specific diagnostic criteria and treatments, and a complete evaluation by a mental health provider can determine whether a child needs help.

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