ON MENTAL ILLNESS: The Epidemic of Sleep Apnea

By Jack Bragen
Thursday November 08, 2012 - 02:33:00 PM

One of the ways a person with mental illness might avoid a premature death is to keep up with their health. A part of this is to get a sleep study. Sleep apnea is a condition in which breathing during sleep is hindered by an obstruction in the airway. Researchers believe it can cause a whole slew of problems, including but not limited to depression and/or a worsening of other psychiatric conditions. 

Sleep apnea is not specifically in the domain of persons with mental illness-it is an illness that affects the mainstream population. However, persons with mental illness probably have a higher than average rate of sleep apnea. 

Problems with sleep apnea can range from a mild annoyance to a life-threatening condition. Persons with mental illness, because of being overweight, and because of being medicated, are more likely to have breathing problems while sleeping. 

Leaving it up to Mother Nature is unwise. There are numerous ways that a human being can die a premature death when leaving health issues up to Mother Nature. It is a fallacy that the human body somehow knows how to correct all of its inherent and acquired problems. It is up to intelligent discretion to decide which things in the body will self-correct, versus which things ought to be intervened upon. Do you want to live naturally, or live long? You can't necessarily do both. 

Modern human beings probably need more frequent medical intervention, in this generation in comparison to previous generations. This is partly because of the prevalence of fast food (as well as the general food supply being doctored up with sugar and fat), causes of stress in the environment, and genetic deterioration of the species. Also, in the past instead of the prevalence of medical help, people died more often. 

I am no fan of unnecessary medical treatments. If a person can get by okay without adding a drug or other treatment, they should. This is true partly because this generation of prescription drugs has a nasty passel of harmful side effects. Thus, taking a drug to solve one problem can bring about multiple other problems. 

If someone has sleep apnea which affects oxygen to the body, taking a sleeping pill will not only fail to address the problem, it could make the condition worse, and this can cause dire medical complications. 

Treating sleep apnea, if you have it, is one of those things of which you should not deprive yourself. Sleep apnea results in lack of oxygen to the brain while you attempt to get some sleep. The lack of oxygen that you're getting forces the heart to work much harder-sleep apnea can cause serious heart problems. The heart works very hard to compensate for the lack of breathing; this is because the human body is designed to try and protect your brain and other organs from damage due to lack of oxygen. 

I have heard of numerous persons with mental illness (some of whom I have met, others I have been told about) dying in their sleep or dying from heart problems. Death occurring in your sleep or caused by a weakened heart are two possible outcomes of severe sleep apnea. 

Sleep apnea entails repeatedly waking up during sleep due to the emergency of not getting enough air. People are often completely unaware of this until someone observes their sleep and tells them about it. Additionally, sleep apnea prevents REM sleep which means that you're not really getting enough rest. Once a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine is introduced, the patient begins to feel a whole lot better while they are awake. 

The mild air pressure of the CPAP machine opens up the breathing passage that has collapsed while asleep. You are still breathing under your own power. However, your breathing is no longer stopped due to weight or due to obstruction in the airway. 

You might wonder if by using the CPAP, you will become dependent upon it, and will be stuck for the rest of your life sleeping with a breathing machine. However, on the contrary, I have read an article that said the CPAP functions as a splint. This means that the machine's beneficial effect is at work even when you are not hooked up; such as when you inadvertently, temporarily remove the mask in your sleep. 

The CPAP machine works to counteract the atmospheric pressure on the outside of the body and it also compensates for the effect of gravity, both of these are factors that make it harder to breathe at night. Oxygen to the body is improved, and so is the quality of sleep, which means that you will get more rest and you will not be deprived of oxygen. This will help you feel better. 

Sleep apnea, again, is somewhat more common among people with mental illness because our weight is usually higher, and we're dealing with the effects of sedating medication. 

The question, if you have been diagnosed with sleep apnea is, are you going to evade treatment and qualify as a masochist, or go with treatment, and be a smart and healthy person? It is up to you. 

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I want to say thank you to those of you who have purchased my book on Amazon, titled "Jack Bragen's Essays On Mental Illness" which contains a year's worth of these columns. If you have any comments, I can be reached at Please inform me as to whether or not I can reprint your comments in the column. If so, I will change your name and identifying information unless you specify otherwise.