ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Brain Health and Tangential Ramblings

Jack Bragen
Friday July 17, 2015 - 06:25:00 PM

Thirty-two years or so of taking high dosages of antipsychotic medication apparently hasn't ruined my brain. Aside from being a writer, I am still able to meet most of my needs--except for relying on Social Security rather than having a day job.  

I get some enjoyment in meeting the daily challenges of life. I am able to carry on an intelligent conversation. And I am able to deal with my computer issues rather than relying on the help of supposed computer experts. By most criteria that people could apply, it would appear that I am not severely brain damaged by medication or by the illness. This is not to deny that there are still some things that most non-afflicted people can handle that I can't. 

Effort is a factor. Antipsychotic medication tends to slow things down and sometimes shuts them down. However, if effort is put into brain-intensive activities, such as taking a class, reading a lot of printed material (such as books, online text, and magazines) or focusing on a task, it exercises the brain. Antipsychotic medication can make these things difficult and sometimes uncomfortable. Yet, if we gently but firmly push past that barrier and do something that requires concentration, it is good for the brain.  

(The other side of this is, if you feel overwhelmed or overstressed by an activity, it might be time to take a break and not push yourself excessively. Effort should not be taken to an extreme and should be balanced with rest.) 

If you have been to a mental health clinic, some of the people you see there might appear to be zoned-out, doped up, and dumbed down. Antipsychotic medication, because of its tendency to shut things down, can then cause the brain to atrophy over time.  

The truism, "use it or lose it," is applicable. If you opt for the seemingly more comfortable mode of not doing anything, then the brain might shrink from lack of use.  

We're also looking at stereotypes. People with mental illness are often prejudged as dumb. While we may not dress and groom spectacularly, and while our speech and mannerisms may appear doped up, it doesn’t mean necessarily that we are unintelligent and lacking in consciousness. Most "normal" people who do not look past the surface might assume that mentally ill people are subnormal. This is not accurate.  

Having a mental illness doesn't make you dumb, and neither does being medicated. Some of us have some deficiencies, and it varies from person to person. Yet many of us also possess great talents, even surpassing those of "normal" people. Being in treatment doesn't make our talents go away.  

Some medications are worse than others at suppressing the higher functions. While I am adapted to antipsychotic medications, there are some other meds (such as an old, sedating antidepressant called "Trazodone") that are worse. Experiences of other people will inevitably vary from mine.  

Taking a non-stimulating supplement, such as fish oil over a long period of time may help brain condition. Fish oil is also good for your cholesterol numbers.  

Exercise, such as taking your dog for a walk, can help us feel better. It isn't necessary to go to the gym and get a great "six pack of abs." Exercising gently while doing something more enjoyable, such as hiking at a park, or walking in general, can be more appealing to many people. And this can also help the mind. Having an exercise partner or hiking in a group is another thing that can make exercise appealing as opposed to it being a chore.  

To sum it up, you can be mentally ill and have a good brain. You can also have self-respect, regardless of other people's regard or lack thereof.  

(When I get angry about mistreatment, and if the dishes are dirty, on some occasions I take out my anger on the dishes. I get out the dish soap, I get the hot water running, and no dirty dish in my home is safe.)