The Physical Realities of Mental Illness

2014 Peace of Mind Conference

What is mental illness all about? Who's fault is it? Can it be cured? These are the questions that surround the stigma associated with mental illness. In this 45-minute message from the 2014 Peace of Mind Conference, psychiatrist Dr. Dan Morehead shares the basic physical realities of mental illness, applauds the strength and courage of those who suffer with it, and offers hope for treatment.

Dr. Dan Morehead practices psychiatry in Austin, Texas. He has seen countless patients suffering mental illness and has watched his son suffer the mental illness of addiction. 

Dan defined mental illness and shared some information about it, all based in thorough research. Mental illness is:

  • a type of medical illness that affects the brain.
  • a physical dysfunction of the brain that causes the inability to think or feel or act in a person’s normal manner.
  • not a matter of choice or willpower.

Dan listed a lot of different mental illnesses ranging from mild depression to bipolar disorder and addiction. What experience do you have with one or more of these illnesses and their symptoms, either in yourself or someone you know?
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Dan said mental illness is “a matter of can’t rather than won’t.” Have you ever thought someone who had mild depression, for example, could feel better if he/she just tried? Or have you talked to someone with mental illness who'd been told something along those lines? What is the danger of not understanding the "can't vs. won't" distinction?
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There is still debate over whether or not mental illness is, in fact, a disease. Dan argues it is a disease because:

  • it’s a bodily dysfunction that can kill or disable a person.
  • it can shorten a person’s lifespan.
  • doctors can see it in a person’s body. 
Mental illness is a huge public health problem. It affects more people than AIDS, diabetes, and strokes, it makes other health problems more likely, and it kills more people than murders do. Close to 100% of suicides are due to mental illness. 

Dan also said that mental illness is common and shared a lot of statistics that prove just how common it is. In what ways did those statistics comfort, concern or challenge you?
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Dan also said that mental illness is isolating. How would you describe the isolation someone with mental illness feels? What different things contribute to that sense of isolation?
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Dan shared that mental illness is biological. There is a physical difference between a healthy and a chronically depressed brain. The brain is capable of changing, though—becoming more healthy—as a person with mental illness seeks treatment. Medication and talk therapy in particular are effective for treatment. 

Dan described all kinds of physical and emotional struggles the mentally ill suffer for a lifetime. He admires victims of mental illness because of their wisdom, tenacity, and strength in facing daily life. What healthy people can do easily in life, the mentally ill have great difficulty with.  

What is your typical attitude toward the mentally ill? What do you think is the attitude of the general public in society towards the mentally ill? Does admiration come to mind?
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Though mental illness can be deadly, Dan said there is hope. He offered three truths to keep in mind as we consider mental illness and its threat to those we love:

  • It’s nobody’s fault.
  • It’s not a spiritual problem.
  • It’s treatable. 

Dan said human beings want to blame people when faced with difficulty. He named some common people we might blame while struggling to understand what’s going on with mental illness: the victim, his or her parents, and doctors. Why do you think blaming people is so comforting, even if it’s not the best approach? Why is blaming people dangerous? What is the potential if we persist in blame?
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Sadly, some people associate mental illness with sin or believe it can be prayed away. What are some reasons you think people misunderstand mental illness in this way? Have you ever encountered someone who thought something as severe as bipolar disorder could be prayed away or was the result of the victim's sin?
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The best news of Dan’s talk is that though there’s no cure for mental illness, it is treatable. What has your experience been with either medication or therapy for mental illness? Has it been helpful to you? Someone you know?
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What help for the mentally ill do you envision if church and community leaders joined together to advocate for the treatment of mental illness? Is there anything you can do to help?
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Job 2:1-10 (ESV)

Satan Attacks Job’s Health

1Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord.2And the Lord said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”3And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason.”4Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life.5But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.”6And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life.”

7So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and struck Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.8And he took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes.

9Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.”10But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The story of Job is a heart-wrenching one as God allows him to go through immense suffering and loss before restoring him to wealth and wellness. As Job endures countless hard times, his friends give any number of reasons why he’s been afflicted, but none of them are right. Even Job’s wife is confused; she wants Job to curse God. In their efforts to make sense of Job’s pain, all of his loved ones miss the truth: life is hard. There is senseless suffering. God is in control, and we are not. 

Carve out some time this week to read Job. Take note of the details of Job’s suffering and how his loved ones respond. Then spend some time in prayer for all who are suffering with mental illness. Consider giving gifts of admiration to those you know personally or making time to visit them.  

For more information on the Peace of Mind Conference, visit