Mental Disease: Is Mental Illness a Real Disease?
Many people ask, "Is mental illness a real disease?" thanks to the prolific stigma and myths that surround mental illness. Some would argue that mental illness is not a real disease and, in fact, doesn't exist at all. However, modern science has weighed in on this matter and has clearly stated that mental diseases are, in fact, real and there is proof.
Mental Health Diseases Are Real
Mental illnesses have been identified as long as there has been written, medical accounts. In fact, it was in 400 B.C. when Greek physician, Hippocrates, first started treating mental illness as physical diseases. While it took a long time for medicine to finally be able to reliably diagnose many mental illnesses, modern medicine now clearly defines mental disorders as diseases and part of their origin is biological.
One psychiatrist, Dr. Jim Phelps, says:
Depression is not a moral weakness. Some people are more susceptible than others even before they are born . . . [There is] genetic and molecular proof. You have to cope with whatever genes and childhood you inherited, but it's not a "level playing field." Some people start the race ahead of others, some way behind (ouch).
Mental Disease Evidence
Each mental disease has its own type of evidence, but here is a look at biological evidence proving that major depressive disorder is real.
For example, here is Dr. Phelps talking about the changes in the brain when a person has depression:
There have been studies showing a change in brain activity when mood shifts, but there is now also research showing a change in brain shape that appears to be associated with severe mood disorders. The brain shrinks, or rather, certain parts of it do. One of those parts is called the hippocampus. This part is associated with making and being able to recall memories. If mood symptoms are severe or go on very long, the hippocampus shrinks . . . The same process appears also to be occurring in frontal lobes as well, though not elsewhere in the brain. This brain shrinkage, called "atrophy", has long been associated with Alzheimer's dementia; but lately it has also been associated with obesity, and even with back pain, and very clearly with depression.
So mental diseases aren't just real because doctors can diagnose them and patients can feel them, but it's also clear that mental diseases are real because we can actually see changes in the brain (Biological Evidence for Depression – Mental Illness Exists). While there is no definitive brain scan used for diagnosis, we are heading in this direction thanks to this type of evidence.
The Good News About the Biological Proof of Mental Diseases
The good news about this evidence that mental illness is real is that we know that treatment does reverse some of these physical effects. For example, we know that antidepressants can stop and even reverse the brain shrinkage seen in major depressive disorder.
While the treatments for mental diseases are far from perfect, the more biological understanding we have of the mental diseases, the better our treatments get.
Last Updated: 20 May 2018
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD