Mental and emotional struggles are seen as symptoms and illnesses in our culture. They can be frightening and debilitating, and they affect lives of millions of people. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) more than 26% of Americans have a mental disorder. If these struggles are so common, should they be seen as illnesses? Do 60 million Americans really have mental diseases?

I believe that many mental disorders are better understood as signals that certain aspects of a person’s life need attention and improvement. Signs of mental and emotional distress are vitally important for health because they tell us that a person is in pain and needs to change.

Each of the issues explored here is described in terms of psychological development. Clinical experience shows me that people can grow into a more comfortable state of mind by working on their issues. In the process they become stronger and more confident. In this sense, therapy is more like self-improvement than it is like disease treatment.

What Causes Mental Disorders?

Many of these issues have medical definitions, but research is inconclusive about physical causes. Consensus in the sciences concludes that mental disorders have many contributing factors. It is impossible to know whether these troubles are the result of genetically inherited brain biology, or if they are because of life circumstances, like trauma or upbringing. They may be passed down through generations by biology and behavior.

We do know that these kinds of issues can be effectively treated both psychologically with therapy, and physically with drugs. Some treatments combine therapy and drugs. The research shows that drug remedies only work as long as the patient is taking the drugs. Some psychological remedies like psychoanalytic therapy bring about lasting changes in the brain as well as the mental and emotional life of a person.

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