Director of the National Institute of Mental Health advocates a new approach to treating mental illness

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The struggle to understand and accurately address mental illness is by no means new. Yet in the TedTalk below, Thomas Insel, of the National Institute of Mental Health, advocates a new approach towards understanding. He employs the comparison of treatment of mental illness to treatment of illnesses such as leukemia and heart disease. In the last several decades, the mortality rate of children with leukemia has been reduced by 80%, paralleled by a 63% reduction rate for men with heart disease. According to Insel, this is due to “understanding something about the diseases that has allowed us to detect early, and intervene early,” and has prevented millions of deaths. However, this reasonable approach to disease treatment is not being utilized when the disease is mental illness. Insel states that suicide is the “third most common cause of death amongst people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five,” and that “90% of suicides are related to a mental illness” such as depression, anorexia, and schizophrenia, among others.

Insel calls for a conceptual re-thinking of how society views, and names, mental illnesses. He argues that as they are ailments within our brains, we should replace the terms ‘mental disorder’ and ‘behavioral disorder’ with ‘brain disorders’. Why does this matter? Because, says Insel, “for brain disorders, behavior is the last thing to change,” yet its only when the behavior changes that treatment commences. Insels compares our current actions regarding treating mental illness to be like only treating heart diseases once the patient has had a preventable heart attack. It is essential, argues Insel, that we focus our mental health treatment efforts on early detection and early intervention. And the first step is a shift in society’s perception of ‘brain disorders’.

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