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

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May 21, 2021

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. 

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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.

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.

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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.

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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Daniel Amen, M.D.
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., which has eight clinics across the country with one of the highest published success rates for treating complex psychiatric issues with the world’s largest database of functional brain scans relating to behavior, with more than 160,000 scans on patients from 121 countries. Amen is the lead researcher for the largest brain imaging and rehabilitation study for professional football players that demonstrates high levels of brain damage in players with solutions for significant recovery as a result of his extensive work. His research on post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury was recognized by Discover magazine’s Year in Science issue as one of the “100 Top Stories of 2015.” Amen has authored and co-authored more than 70 professional articles, seven scientific book chapters and 40-plus books, including the No. 1 New York Times bestsellers, “The Daniel Plan” and “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.” His most recent book, “Change Your Brain, Change Your Grades,” includes editorial contributions from his teenage daughter, Chloe Amen, and niece, Alizé Castellanos.