Neuroscientists like Taylor Beck, a researcher at Columbia University, tell us that stress changes the architecture of the brain, especially in the case of prolonged stress. The neurons actually begin to decrease in size in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus while neurons in the little almond shaped amygdala, the seat of addictions and anxiety, “expand like shrubbery.” No wonder childhood trauma or living in a stressful or toxic environment can set people up for a lifetime of coping with a mood disorder, especially if there is genetic susceptibility already on board.
Some statistics report that nearly 30% of Americans cope with depression at some point in their lives and some throughout their lives. The question is why do we not recognize the early symptoms of mood disorder but ignore the stressors that people are dealing with, earlier, before they become so apparent that a major interruption occurs in a person’s life. Every time I see a new tragic story of a shooting I wonder what was going on in that person’s life and did no one see signs that there was something amiss?
Increased education of law enforcement, educators, pastors, coaches, health care professionals, preschool care givers is an important part of early treatment of mental health issues. Actually, school curricula should include mandatory courses in mental health issues and coping with physical, environmental, and emotional stress.
This is not the time to cut funds for mental health. This is the time to add school counselors to staffs, not only for career guidance, but for life guidance. An important addition to human resources departments would be a counselor to assist in managing on the job stress as well as factors that are affecting job performance. These services should be provided free of charge. The cost of not having them far outweighs the cost of prevention.
Questions for election debates do not seem to include mental health services, yet that is an important element in many of the problems we face in this country. Prison is not the alternative. What if mental health check-ups were as routine as yearly physicals? What if it didn’t take months to get an appointment with a psychiatrist, not only for veterans but for the general public as well? What if contacts with patients to see how they are doing would become a routine follow up after treatment? What if medications and psychotherapy for mental illness simply dealing with the stresses of life were affordable and accessible?
If only we begin to identify what is really wrong, can we then start imagining how to make it better. Imagining a kinder, more supportive approach to dealing with stress and mental health issues is step one.