When family members find themselves walking on eggshells, to avoid aggression or even violence from a loved one with serious mental illness, it is too often difficult to understand why a son, daughter, mother or father can strike out at a loved one. It is horrifying to wonder how they can kill others.
The parents of a girl, Avielle, killed in the 2012 Newtown, Ct., tragedy, started a foundation in her name to study the science of violence and promote healthy brain initiatives.
Why would anyone choose to be homeless? Or refuse treatment?
Often, family members don't know that their loved ones are not feeling well because a symptom of serious mental illness can be an inability to recognize that things just aren't right, something called anosognosia, a Greek word meaning "no knowledge of disease," or insight. Understanding this medical reality can help family members get their expectations in line with the harsh reality of denial as an element of illness.
It's not just family members but scientists who have too often felt shut out of understanding fully how the brain functions.
Today, however, the federal government has announced a "Brain Initiative" to pioneer new understandings of the brain, just like the Genome Project realized breakthroughs in understanding genetics.
The National Institutes of Mental Health is a wealth of information on the leading research, and its clinical trials are a window into the future of knowledge. While its name, the National Institutes of "Mental" Health and its material remains tethered, like many organizations, including Treatment Before Tragedy, to the old concepts of "mental" illness, its research dollars are being directed largely at one part of the body: the brain.
When we discuss health concerns of the heart, we talk about "cardiac" issues. When we explore ailments of the lungs, we conduct "pulmonary" research.
Why are brain illnesses called "mental" illnesses. Or "behavioral" disorders? The brain is one organ of the human body by which diseases and disorders are not ascribed to the body part. Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institutes of Mental Health, argues that we need to reframe "mental illnesses" and "behavioral disorders." "We need to think of these as brain disorders," he says.
Treatment Before Tragedy agrees that the term "mental illness" needs to be reframed for what it is: a condition of the neuroscience of the brain.
Researchers, scientists and family members supporting their work offer us hope. We can hope that we will one day develop better detection and prevention strategies, as well as maybe even cures, for serious mental illness. It wasn't once considered possible for HIV or cancer, but serious research has made major advances for those illnesses, once considered death sentences. We can only hope for as much progress for serious mental illness.
While familes often feel there is nowhere to go for treatment and services, researchers are headed in very clear directions in their research, including a significant project, the Human Connectome Project, examining the relationship between neural pathways and a brain's health. In a new federal brain initiative, universities from MIT to University of California at San Diego are directing new dollars at brain research. In addition, groups such as IMHRO dedicate important funding to research.