Depressive illness differs from being blue or sad. Being sad or blue from time to time can be a normal reaction to life’s challenges. However, if such feelings are persistent or severe, they may be symptoms of clinical depression.
Depression is one of the most common and treatable of all illnesses. In any six-month period, 9.4 million Americans suffer depression. One in four women and one in six men will develop clinically significant depression over their lifetime. Eighty five percent of depressed patients can be treated effectively and nearly all depressed patients who receive treatment will benefit to some degree.
Almost all suicides are caused by depression. Suicide is the eighth leading cause of death in the United States and for those in the age group between 15 to 24, suicide accounts for a full one-third of all deaths. Early recognition and appropriate treatment of depression is our best means to prevent these needless deaths.
People with bipolar disorder suffer intense mood swings. They can cycle from great depths of depression and irritability to feelings of exhilaration, which is called mania. In between mood swings, they often have long periods of normalcy. While experiencing mania, patients can spend themselves into bankruptcy, ruin their careers and harm their relationships with friends and families. Episodes can last a few hours to years.
When depressed, bipolar patients sleep excessively and their thoughts and activities slow down. They have feelings of low self-esteem, helplessness and hopelessness. More than one out of four patients will attempt suicide if not adequately treated. Although bipolar disorder can be very disabling, it is also among the most treatable of illnesses. People with bipolar illness who receive the appropriate treatment can and do live full and effective lives.
Nearly 33 million Americans suffer from alcoholism and other drug addictions. The costs to our society exceeds $260 billion. These mind-altering drugs enter the blood stream, travel to the brain and have profound effects on its function. The underlying causes of addiction are varied but experts believe that they are rooted in the brain’s genetic make-up. However, many who may have inherited a strong potential for addiction never do become addicted. There is a complex relationship between addiction and mental illness, with either one aggravating or causing the other. It was only 25 years ago that we first recognized addiction as a disease and not just a weakness of character. However, the stigmas associated with terms such as “drunk” and “junkie” continue to interfere with proper diagnosis and treatment. Treatment centers for drug and alcohol abuse are available but we need more. Especially lacking are facilities for those who suffer both psychiatric and addictive illnesses.
Research into treatment and cures for addiction has yielded some promising clues. For example, cocaine craving has been found to be associated with the release of the chemical messenger dopamine in a part of the brain sometimes referred to as the “reward pathway”. Drugs to prevent cocaine-seeking behavior are under development. Antabuse and RiVea are now being prescribed for alcoholism and new medicines are on their way.
Two million Americans suffer from Schizophrenia at an estimated annual cost of $30 billion. Schizophrenia is a mental illness characterized by indifference, withdrawal, delusions, hallucinations, disturbances in thinking and communication and deteriorating social functioning. The schizophrenic brain seems to be disconnected from itself.
Research has shown that a person suffering from Schizophrenia has a chemical imbalance in the brain. Clinicians and researchers have known for years that dopamine, a neuro-chemical transmitter in the brain, is critical to the process. Dopamine is one of the brain chemicals responsible for the ability of brain cells to process information and communicate with one another. A MIRA-supported research project at the University of Michigan Medical Center is studying the role of dopamine in Schizophrenia. Brain imaging, (MRI’s and PET Scan’s), has shown subtle abnormalities in the brains of Schizophrenia patients and there is strong evidence for a genetic basis. We now have a number of anti-psychotic medications that help bring bio-chemical imbalances closer to normal. They can significantly reduce or eliminate hallucinations and delusions and help patients lead happier and more productive lives.
MIRA has funded two schizophrenia research grants at the University of Michigan Medical Center. These projects are studying presynaptic dopamine function and the neurochemical anatomy of the thalamus in schizophrenia.
Autism is a neurological developmental disorder of the young brain. Symptoms don’t become evident until the child has reached one or two years of age. Autistic individuals have extreme difficulties in communicating. They may be mute, ignore caregivers, not cuddle and resist affection. Their intelligence ranges from low to superior. They often become extremely distressed by changes in their environment and may have temper tantrums.
Little is known about autism. It is only recently that we have had the tools to study the autistic brain and research now promises progress in finding causes and cures.
In one MIRA-funded study, researchers, using an imaging device (PET scanner), studied the brains of autistic children. Their study focused on the neurotransmitter serotonin, a chemical that brain cells use to communicate with one another, and how it might have been altered during brain development in autistic children. Estimates are that one in every thousand children is autistic (the male to female ratio being five to one). This means that between 200,000 and 300,000 children in America are autistic. There is good reason to believe that autism research will ultimately lead to cures or prevention.
ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)
What we now call attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has been called by many names, including; hyperactivity, minimal brain dysfunction and hyper kinetic syndrome. The ADHD child has trouble finishing activities, doesn’t seem to listen to anything said to him, acts before thinking, is excessively active even during sleep, requires constant attention, calls out in class and can’t wait his turn. Many of those with ADHD harness their symptoms and can lead successful lives.
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disorder that slowly kills off brain cells. Alzheimer’s was first identified in 1907 by the psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer. Estimates are that four million Americans are afflicted with Alzheimer’s at an annual cost of $90 billion. At least 1 in 20 adults, age 65 and over suffers from Alzheimer’s and a startling 45% of those over the age of 85 are affected.
Early symptoms include forgetfulness, apathy, irritability, anxiousness and an inability to cope with change. As it progresses symptoms worsen, memory further declines and names and faces are forgotten. The patient becomes disoriented, isolated and unable to manage his or her affairs.
There are now a few medications that can slow Alzheimer’s progress and even reverse some of its symptoms for a time. Many believe that in the near future, we will be able to prevent and cure Alzheimer’s.
General Anxiety Disorder
People with general anxiety disorder suffer excessive worry about many aspects of life and may dwell on past traumas. Their fears are unrealistic and exaggerated. They experience shakiness and trembling and are often preoccupied by the fear that something bad is going to happen to themselves or those they love.
Two and one-half million Americans suffer from this anxiety disorder. They are plagued by persistent unacceptable thoughts or impulses, such as, thoughts of violence or being infected by having physical contact with other people. Their behavior is often ritualized and repetitive. They may spend hours grooming themselves, cleaning the house and checking and rechecking things in their daily lives.
One and one-half million Americans are afflicted with this anxiety disorder during any 6 month period. They suffer sudden, intense, disorganizing fear – often for no apparent reason. They sweat, have hot or cold flashes, shake and feel as if they are smothering. Panic attacks are accompanied by a sense of impending doom, imminent death or a fear of “losing ones mind”.
Phobias afflict 12% of all Americans during their lifetimes. These people have what they recognize as irrational fears. They go to great lengths to avoid that which they fear – thus robbing themselves of a full life.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is often associated with battle trauma but may result from any severe life-threatening physical or mental trauma. PTSD patients suffer trauma-related nightmares, intrusive images or flashbacks. They often startle easily, suffer depression and insomnia and frequently engage in substance abuse.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social Anxiety Disorder (social phobia, performance anxiety) is far more common than once thought, affecting up to 16% of the population. The core symptom is a marked fear of embarrassment or humiliation when the person is the focus of attention. This fear leads to avoidance of such situations and is far more than simple shyness. Patients with social anxiety disorder experience symptoms at a level that causes clinically significant distress and disability. This disorder starts early in life and there is a high incidence of substance abuse and depression associated with it.
Possible causes may include biochemical imbalances, genetics and childhood stressors. Treatment can be effective and includes various medications and certain forms of psychotherapy.