Text written by Nicholas Colb
This week we looked into mental health and the neurological phenomena behind the most common mental health disorders. This issue is extremely current given the global rise in anxiety- and depression-related suicide rates and the recent discourse on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health worldwide. Arguably, this topic presents one of the most significant challenges currently faced by humanity.
I thought it was interesting to read about how mental health disorders can be treated with psychotherapy, and that psychotherapy works to modify pathological brain connections. For instance, the stress response has been shown to cause hippocampal neurons to die, which in turn sets off a cycle in which the stress response becomes more active, but patients can learn to suppress the response through therapy.
Furthermore, I found it interesting to realize how recent the understanding is that mental health is linked to pathologic modifications of the brain instead of spiritual, moral or religious factors. While it is amazing that neuroscience has paved the way for revolutionary clinical findings in treating mental health disorders, I think an interesting question to ask is whether the secularization of society has had some effect on rising mental health rates in western countries. For instance, do practices such as religious rituals, praying and meditation—having been part of virtually every human culture for thousands of years—serve some purpose for human mental wellbeing, such as deactivating the stress response or generating a sense of connection to the world? I think this is an important question to ask, given the point emphasized in the book that different treatments work for different patients struggling with the same mental health condition due to patients receiving the same diagnosis from different underlying causes.