Mental Illness as a Disease
Dear FNL Editorial Folks:
I think it is fantastic that the FNL printed John Belcher's story on his battle with depression. It is so important to get out into the open that depression (or any mental illness) is a disease (like any other) and we must study it and learn how to best treat it on an individual basis (one size does not fit all). In my case, many know me as being manic excitive: I usually zip around in a state between excessively hyper and just hyper. It is a blessing and a curse. Like many ADHD++ types (many people at MIT) it allows us to do a lot of things at once.
However, it can also not overly endear us to some when they get caught in the vortex. In my case, and in the case of many students I advise from high school (our own kids and now FIRST robotics kids) an effective treatment has been exercise: not just general workout and stay fit, but pushing the body to its limits and beyond where the body uses all its easy resources and then is driven by the mind to really dig deep. In many cases that means endurance sports (intense swim, bike, run… any aerobic activity for periods longer than one hour). This level of exercise gets the endorphins flowing and seems to push a reset button in the brain that brings calm and order to the storm so the high velocity winds blow in the same direction.
With respect to the feeling of utter depression and despondency that Prof. Belcher wrote about, I have been there several times in my life when I was literally near death, and even then exercise helped.
I recall spinning on my bike for hours while hooked up to the IV line! Recently I experienced total depression after returning from a trip to India where I met many wonderful people but also saw a side of the world that had some very sad things. My depression was so bad that even my intense workouts could only bring me up to half my normal hyper/happy state, and I was ready to go to Mental Health to find out what was wrong with me. I was ready to go when I mentioned to a colleague who had been on the trip with me that he also seemed super blah, and he said "Oh, its the anti-malarial meds." I had taken my last pill and so I decided to complete the experiment and every day I got better. That problem thus solved, even though I did not seek medical help, the important thing is I had crossed the threshold, or I would have if there had not been an identifiable reason.
In view of the above and as the nation launches a bold new effort on mapping the brain, I hope MIT will take a lead on researching the true meaning of mens et manus: The health of the mind is directly affected by the health of the body.
To ignore one at the expense of the other is to ignore evolution and that would mean we might as well ride our dinosaurs off into the sunset like our forefathers did 7000 years ago. I thus hope to see significant research on how intense physical exercise affects the brain, in addition to research on just how the brain works.
In the end, the lesson learned from all this: Even big rough tough Texans like John, or shy quiet delicate folks such as myself, are human, and as humans we must never stop seeking answers to questions including how can we make our lives and the lives of others better. Better diet and exercise = better state of mind. Better state of mind = better life. Better life may or may not include synthetic medication. Better to be human than not.