As a neuroscientist, I am fascinated by the brain, small as it is (about 1.2 Kg), it happens to be the most complex and least understood organ in the universe. All your feelings, thoughts, memories, and actions are controlled by your brain.
In understanding how the brain works and how nerve cells communicate with each other, we begin to understand that the brain is responsible for a lot of the functions of the human body. The brain is a very sensory organ – it gets sensory input from the environment and prepares you for appropriate actions.
However, everyone is unique – in terms of previous experiences and memories, and hence your brain reacts to various stimuli differently. For example, the brain can help us understand why some people are more resilient to stress than others.
Our knowledge of how the brain functions is evolving rapidly, thanks to technological advancements in brain imaging, neurosciences, brain stimulation and even data sciences, which all promote a better understanding of the brain circuits underlying responses to psychosocial and physiological stressors. This informs our understanding of the factors contributing to brain- and mental-ill health.
Physical health conditions like diabetes, result from malfunctioning organs – like the pancreas in this instance. Likewise, mental illnesses result from altered brain functioning, specifically, malfunctioning brain circuits. As we understand what ‘is broken’ we will be able to ’fix’ the damage using appropriate therapies (personalized interventions).
This also means that we should not blame people when they are struggling with mental illness, just as we do not blame people for having heart attacks or diabetes. A better understanding of the causes of mental illness and reduced stigma will hopefully promote non-judgemental encounters and compassionate responses. The victims of mental ill health should not suffer in silence but should seek and get compassionate care and support.
Mental health disorders are very common, with an estimated 1 in 4 adults experiencing a mental illness in any given year. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) depression will be the largest cause of illness worldwide. Depression is a silent epidemic in low- and middle-income countries, especially for women, who are affected at twice the rate of men. Those suffering from depression need non-judgemental and empathetic support. Unhelpful advice and comments might only make matters worse.
Mental health disorders are not always visible to others. Many people with mental health conditions can function well in their daily lives while still experiencing symptoms.
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How then can we better support our mental well-being?Take care of your physical health
It is important for us to be intentional in how we take care of our bodies through proper nutrition, regular physical activity, proper sleep, and constant hydration of our bodies.
Regular visits to your doctor are also important as the doctor may notice anything that may be off with your behaviour, body or even emotions.Mind your mental well-being
Stress is a key contributing factor to mental illness. It is crucial to learn how to cope with stressful relationships at the workplace or in your family. Practice self-care to regulate your behaviours and emotions. This can be through journaling or engaging in activities that relax your mind.
Prioritise relationships that foster healthy communication and engage in activities that increase your happiness. Having a strong support network of family and friends that treat mental illness seriously and offer support is very crucial.Value your Social wellbeing
This journey is better travelled with loved ones. Join a support group that can walk with you on this journey or find a community that has similar interests to you say a cycling group or a yoga class. Be intentional with your social network and engage in wholesome conversation, volunteer to support persons with mental illnesses and engage in activities of similar interest.
I would like to remind everyone that mental health issues arise when certain brain mechanisms are not working optimally. Be kind and supportive - conversations start at the level of family and friends, at the offices/campus and even at the houses of worship. We all need to take a proactive role to tackle this silent epidemic and hope you will join us.
The writer, Prof Zul Merali, is the Founding Director of Brain and Mind Institute, Aga Khan University.