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Why the science of mental health can make us a better society

THE suicide of Linkin Park front man Chester Bennington has caused a recent spike in the conversation surrounding mental health. And while the conversation surrounding depression and mental health has matured over the recent years, we as a society have still a long way to go.

Here in the Philippines, the Senate has just recently approved the Philippine Mental Health Act of 2017. Senate Bill No. 1354 was unanimously approved upon third and final reading in May. 

In a statement she made shortly after the approval, Senator Risa Hontiveros, who sponsored the bill, hailed the event as “historic.” While this is certainly true, the late arrival of this historic event, and the fact that concrete legislation that addresses mental health issues is still in the works, is telling of where Philippine society is when it comes to dealing with mental health issues. 

What Senator Hontiveros said later in the same statement drives the point of why such a bill is urgently needed in the Philippines: “Sa lahat ng hindi makatarungang sinabihan ng sira-ulo, lukaret, maluwag ang turnilyo, may sayad, baliw, abnormal, may topak, emo, praning, sinto-sinto, at buang dahil sa maling pang-unawa sa issues sa mental health—para po sa inyo ang batas na ito.”

In that part of her statement, Senator Hontiveros is touching on the fact that like in many societies, there is a widespread view in the Philippines that mental illness is a sign of some moral failing or a weakness of personality instead of a health issue like diabetes or pneumonia. Such a view is often accompanied by a belief that mental disorders, because they are not physical like polio or diabetes, are less serious, or even less real. Closely related to this is the view that because the illness is mental, the patient can just will them away.

Such views have resulted in a lack of understanding toward the mentally ill and their actions. Worse, they have led to interactions that make the illness worse. Many mental health patients are yet to seek professional help and treatment because of many reasons. Among them is the view that such treatments are unnecessary because willpower is enough.

But what does the science say about mental health and mental illnesses? Unfortunately, many details of the picture are not yet very clear. For example, scientists are only now realizing that there may be more kinds of depression that we previously thought. This might explain why there is a very wide array of possible causes and symptoms for depression, which makes the illness difficult to diagnose early or prevent. This might also explain the very wide array of treatments out there, only a few of which work for a particular patient. Often, each treatment can only partially help the patient, and so a combination of treatments must be explored, often by guesswork. 

This is why, at the moment, many psychologists and psychiatrists explain that the treatment of many mental health disorders is as much an art as it is a science. This does not mean that there is no scientific basis to the many treatments that exist and are prescribed by specialists. On the contrary, there is a significant body of research to back up our current understanding of what causes different kinds of mental illnesses, how they affect those afflicted with them, and what possible treatments can be given to people who suffer from mental illness. 

However, our understanding is far from complete. This is no surprise. After all, the human brain is the most complex thing known to science. To understand its inner workings, we are using the very same brain, with all of its limitations. For another, scientists have only begun approaching the issue of mental health from a throughly scientific and medical standpoint. Some psychiatrists even compare our current understanding of mental health to that of doctors during the time when they were only beginning to understand that the cause of infectious diseases were not imbalances in the body’s “humors” but rather disease-causing agents such as microbes and toxins.

That said, we must welcome every advance in our understanding of mental health and mental illness, instead of holding on to old notions of human agency. For one, it will make us more effective in dealing with our own mental health and that of those near and dear to us. But more importantly, a more up-to-date scientific understanding of mental health will make us more empathetic and understanding. This also serves as a reminder of the general rule that a deeper scientific understanding of the human condition has the potential to increase our capacity to build a more compassionate and humane society. 

Pecier Decierdo is resident physicist and astronomer of The Mind Museum.

Topics: Sounds of Science , science of mental health , Philippine Mental Health Act of 2017 , Senate Bill No. 1354 , Senator Risa Hontiveros , psychologists , psychiatrists
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