It's Time We Redefine Mental Health As Brain Health, Says A Neuropsychiatrist

Clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist By Daniel Amen, M.D.
Clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist
Daniel Amen, MD, is a clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist, physician, professor and 10-time New York Times bestselling author. He is a double board-certified child and adult psychiatrist and founder of Amen Clinics, Inc.
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I'm a psychiatrist, and I hate the terms "mental illness" and "psychiatric disorders." These labels make us envision people as mad, deranged, disturbed, unbalanced, unhinged, or unstable—even though these adjectives apply to an extremely small percentage of people.

It's no wonder that being diagnosed with a mental illness fills people with shame. The stigma attached to anyone who experiences issues associated with the mind makes us less likely to talk about it or seek help. What's worse, mental illness is viewed as a character flaw, as if someone is willfully choosing to be unhappy, anxious, or moody. 

Enough already! It's time to change the discussion around mental health.

Why we need to reframe the mindset around mental health.

For decades, the field of psychiatry has been placing emphasis on the wrong domain—the mind or the psyche—when brain imaging teaches us that mental health is really brain health.

Over the last 30 years, my colleagues and I have built the world's largest database of brain scans related to behavior. We have performed more than 170,000 brain SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) scans, which measure blood flow and activity in the brain. It has become crystal clear to us that as psychiatrists we are not dealing with mental health issues but rather brain health issues. And this one idea has changed everything we do to help our patients.

The human brain is an organ just like your heart is an organ, and you can only be as mentally healthy as your brain is functionally healthy. No one is shamed for cancer, heart disease, or diabetes even though they have significant lifestyle contributions. Likewise, no one should be shamed for depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.

Reframing the discussion from mental health to brain health changes everything. It decreases shame and guilt and increases forgiveness and compassion. Doing so also elevates hope, increases the desire to get help, and improves compliance to make the necessary lifestyle changes to get well.

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3 ways to stop the mental health stigma:

1. Develop brain envy.

It all starts by learning to love your brain. Get your brain right, and your mind will follow. In a growing body of research, including a study in BMC Psychology, improving the physical functioning of the brain improves the mind.

2. View problems as medical, not moral.

When you think of mental health problems like ADHD, PTSD, or depression as medical issues, it eliminates judgment.

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3. Consider sharing your story.

Talking about mental health as brain health is an important part of destigmatizing it. Opening up about your own experiences with mental well-being and brain health can be beneficial to yourself and others. As I like to say, pain shared is pain divided.

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