How Biology and The Environment Effect Mental Illness (And Steps For Recovery)

Adults Living With Mental Illness, Family to Family Series – Week 4

I know the title sounds like a science lesson and nobody wants that! Especially me! But in order to have a better understanding of mental illness and how to help our loved ones cope with it, we need to have as much information as possible.

I’ll go easy on you.

The Limbic System is the central hub for all emotions and there is a connection between this system and all major mental disorders. Most of the symptoms of mental disease are tied to cortical dysfunction.

Cortical Dysfunction

Short term memory is a function of the cortex. Some people with schizophrenia have a difficult time retaining information and getting it mixed up. We process thoughts like a domino effect, one after another, but someone with schizophrenia typically has problems doing that and their thoughts are scattered and random.

Another significant finding with those experiencing schizophrenia is that they have a pattern of gray matter loss. There is consistent tissue loss as the disease progresses. Studies done with twins where one had schizophrenia and the other did not show a definite size difference in the two brain scans side by side.

Brain scans for those diagnosed with OCD showed much less white matter within the brain.

People who suffer from depression and bipolar disorder have greatly reduced glial cells in their brain. They also have higher glucose metabolism and more blood flow.

Panic disorders show interference within the limbic system that enhances anxiety.

Part of the problem with mental illness and the brain is the system override that interferes with knowing what to worry about and what to discard. Every emotion and feeling are heightened and made worse. The cause for this is linked to the nicotine receptors in the brain. Nicotine from cigarettes actually has a calming effect on the mental chaos and explains why so many people with severe mental illness smoke.

Genetic Risk Factors

Research has concluded that there is a slight to moderate risk of developing a mental illness from a first-degree relative. It breaks down like this:

  • No Genetic Relationship (No one in the immediate family has a mental illness. – Risk is 1-5%
  • Brother or Sister – Risk is 10-15%
  • One Parent – 13-27%
  • Both Parents – 37-74%

The Environment

In this context, the environment includes viruses, injury, toxic material and even changes as we age.

There is some thought that mothers who have a virus while pregnant, can in some cases pass along that virus to the infant’s brain. Women in densely populated areas have a higher risk for viruses themselves and if they also suffer from malnutrition or have compromised immune systems, there is a greater risk to their children for developing a mental illness.

The other components; injury, exposure to toxic material and aging covers a vast amount of material. Needless to say, there are a variety of causes that can trace back to creating a biological malfunction within the brain.

The Bottom Line

What all of this means, in a nutshell, is that most mental illness is a biological and/or neurological disorder. It is not a weak character or laziness. It is counterproductive to try and blame the victim or expect them to just snap out of it. We have been conditioned to urge our ill family members to just be more positive and have more self-control. This is unfair as those suffering from a mental disorder have very little control over their illness at all. It’s like asking someone with a broken leg to compete in a race. It’s just not possible.

It is also unfair to expect them to magically overcome their disorder with more self-discipline and a better attitude. They may look ‘normal’ on the outside, but they still suffer tremendously with a traumatic illness.

The journey to recovery and maintenance is difficult and comes in stages requiring different levels of support with always the reminder that setbacks are common. Even when progress is made, families should be cautious in the celebration, because their loved ones are still vulnerable and in a fragile state.

Making too much over improvements can cause stress and anxiety in your loved one for fear they cannot maintain the progress and risk disappointing you.

They need our patience, compassion and willingness to keep learning all we can about their disease.

That is why I took this class. I was starting to fail miserably with the compassion and patience portion in dealing with my adult daughter’s mental illness. From previous articles in this series you may remember that she has a series of diagnoses ranging from major depression to anxiety to OCD. She lives with me so I see the devastating effects these have on her life. At the same time, I often struggle with believing she could more.

There is a fine line between someone giving in to the mental illness and trying to improve, but running into roadblocks. There are times I’m convinced she is using her diagnosis to check out of adulthood. That frustrates and even angers me at times. Then I feel terribly guilty. It’s a vicious cycle. So, I decided I needed more information. Knowledge is the first step to understanding the inner chaos those like my daughter experience.

Stages of Recovery

Step 1 – The Crisis

This one is very familiar to us. It is a time of distress, confusion, and exhaustion. Our loved one may be in denial, depressed, angry or ashamed. Their biggest need at this point is to rest and receive proper treatment. This can either be done at home or depending on the severity, at a mental health facility.

Step 2 – The Decision

There comes a time when our loved one must make the decision to get on with life. They may have to learn new coping skills and regain their independence. They will feel a wide range of emotions from hope to grief, from self-doubt to excitement and from pride to frustration. All of these are normal and expected in this phase. There will also be the need to tell their story. They need a tribe around them who support and believe in their recovery and some may need new social skills.

Step 3 – The Awakening

With new independence and belief in themselves, they can begin to take back their lives and their dreams. It may not look like they (or you) thought it would, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be happy and fulfilled. In this stage, they learn to accept their limitations but also look forward to the future. Their need at this level is to find something meaningful. It can be a new job or becoming an advocate for others in need. They can contribute and in doing so will feel accomplished and appreciated.

There is a tender balance between encouraging our loved ones suffering from mental illness to move on with life and accepting that they truly may just be doing the very best that they can. We have to learn when to push and when to back off. We will not always get it right, but don’t give up. Mental illness affects everyone in the family. It is not our jobs to be perfect or to fix every problem. It is our job to love them unconditionally but at the same time practice self-care and remember to love ourselves.

Join me next week when we will learn problem-solving skills. (I may have to take that class twice!)

Until then…

Hope With Abandon

Hope Out

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J. Hope Suis is an inspirational writer and relationship coach with over 20 years of experience. Her life’s motto is “Hope With Abandon”, and it is her goal to spread that message anyway she can.

In addition to her blog, she wrote and published Mid-Life Joyride (Love In The Single Lane) which is a light-hearted yet meaningful collection of true stories, encouragement and direction for anyone starting over again in midlife.