It’s all in the head

Seven years ago, researchers Christopher Murray and Alan Lopez were hired by the World Bank and World Health Organization to find out how many people suffer from a disease that was a burden on their lives.

The study, known as the Global Study of Burden Diseases (GBD), found that mental illness was the second most common disease in the world to cause people not to live their lives normally. The first was heart disease.

David Shern, dean for the Florida Mental Health Institute at USF, said there is a difference between mental health and mental illness. Mental health is associated with people enjoying themselves, sleeping well and having an optimistic approach to life, Shern said. Conversely, mental illness such as depression involves a list of symptoms that include loss of interest in life, not eating or sleeping properly, Shern said.

“Basically, mental health is the lack of mental illness,” he said. “A person is able to take part in their normal life in a normal way.”

Mental illnesses are common in the United States and internationally, according to the GBD. An estimated 22.1 percent of Americans 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental illness in any given year. In addition, four out of the 10 leading causes of disability in the United States and other developed countries are mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and obsessive–compulsive disorder.

Shern said a person with a mental illness could expect to struggle with it for a long time.

“(The illness) will usually start slowly in young people in the beginning of their college or professional job careers, but it takes a long duration of time (recover),” he said.

However, there are effective treatments for mental illnesses, Shern said.

“It is just trying to get people who have a mental illness to take the medication and get help,” he said.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, many people can suffer from more than one mental illness at a time.

“If it is not treated, then the illness can progress to be worse,” Shern said.

Shern said that, without medication, a person could suffer severe side effects.

Loss of a job, house, friends and enjoyment can lead a person into a deeper state of illness, Shern said. Taking the necessary treatment can allow the person, their friends and employers to become aware of the disability and even receive some benefits.

“The problem is, we know what to do to help, but we can’t because people are scared and embarrassed,” he said. “It’s a morality weakness.”

Shern added that with the use of education, people could become more aware of what mental health is and how a person can develop a mental illness.

“Mental illness can start many ways,” he said. “Two major ones are genetic predisposition and trauma.”

Genetic predispositions are responsible for mental illnesses such as depression, addictions and schizophrenia.

“It’s similar to those who have cancer or diabetes in their family,” Shern said. “A person is at an elevated risk of getting a mental illness.”

Traumas, on the other hand, are mental illnesses that develop because of stress or abuse, which can cause someone to act a abnormally, Shern said.

“It is how you interpret your level of stress,” he said. “If you feel like you are overwhelmed, then you may have too much stress. If you thrive on a lot of activities and stress, then you may not. It is all about the environment that you put yourself in.”

Shern also said there are different levels of environments of mental illnesses.

“A person can be resilient and go through with no problem, or they can be fragile,” he said.

Either way, a primary care physician can detect a mental illness. Shern said primary care physicians today have a better understanding of how to recognize a mental illness and help a patient.

“If you realize you have a mental illness and treat it, it won’t decrease the degree of living your life,” he said.

Even now, colleges are taking part in National Awareness Month to help students recognize a problem. The USF Counseling Center for Human Development offers an online free mental health screening to let students know there is help.

Dale Hicks, associate director for the Counseling Center for Human Development, said the screening, which began in September, allows the person to remain anonymous and answer questionnaires for certain types of mental illnesses. They include those for mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, alcohol problems and post-traumatic stress. After completing the questionnaire, the results and a range are given immediately.

“If they fall in a certain range, they are instructed to set an appointment with the center,” Hicks said. “But it is up to them if they want to come.”

Hicks said the only thing the center does is keep statistics on the screenings. Since September, there have been about 200 people taking one or more of the tests. To take an online screening go to .

“Depression is the one that is taken the most,” Hicks said.Whether it is counseling or medication, mental illness can be treated. It is just the step that is taken to get there, Shern said.”We want people to have a normal life,” he said.

“And expect them to play a role to have a quality lifestyle.”

Contact Stefanie Greenat