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Mitchell Rosen: Schizophrenia is a brain disease, not mental illness, health advocates say

A professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and chairman of the Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America is among many health professionals lobbying Congress to get schizophrenia classified as a brain disease, like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, instead of a mental illness.
Among the reasons, schizophrenia is poorly understood and those with this disease are often characterized as violent when in fact schizophrenics are more likely to be victims of violence, homelessness, being incarcerated or committing suicide than those with other neurological diseases. It also is true that mental illnesses often are not given the same priority as other diseases considered more “medical” than mental.
I would add many more illnesses to the list of those that should be taken out of the DSM V [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] and be identified as neurological or genetic disorders. Tourette’s Syndrome and Autism quickly come to mind. One day, we may find the majority of illnesses we identify as mental are, in fact, biologically based. The field of psychiatry has exciting research on many illnesses, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, showing evidence of brain changes in those individuals who suffer from these diseases.
My training was in psychology, not in medicine. While I am not a physician, I was fortunate to have my internship at a psychiatric hospital where the doctors were all physicians, trained in both psychiatry and medicine. It seemed the more we understood the more we realized we were just scratching the surface of understanding mental disorders.
There was a time schizophrenia was seen as being possessed by the devil and exorcisms were performed. I’d like to think we’ve come a long way since those days, but I still see illnesses that manifest with behavioral symptoms viewed as a weakness or choice by the patients.
I can state with a fair amount of certainty the illnesses we describe as mental are not the result of weakness or choice. Take the 4-year-old diagnosed with autism. Did this child choose to have difficulty relating to others or to be hypersensitive to noises or touch? Of course not. Was the child weak and that is why he or she developed autism? That view would be absurd. Yet, as long as we separate with such stigma illnesses that manifest with behavioral symptoms from illness that only seem to exhibit physical symptoms, we are doing a disservice to those with what we now call mental disorders.
It would be nice if in my lifetime the DSM was replaced with a more accurate title: Those illnesses that manifest with behavioral symptoms instead being the “Manual of Mental Disorders.” The stigma still attached to depression, anxiety, autism, schizophrenia, Tourette’s and so many others identified as mental disorders is still pervasive. Since so many are viewed negatively, research funds often are limited or in competition with other illnesses — and this is sad to write — that are viewed more positively.
Mitchell Rosen is a licensed therapist with practices in Corona and Temecula.
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