health | December 16, 2012

David Eagleman: Mental Illness Is Real—And It's Important We Understand It

In the wake of the the tragic shootings that took place last week at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, trusted neuroscientist David Eagleman says that it is important that we, "prioritize our national discussion of mental illness," now more than ever. "I suggest we take this tragedy as a wake-up call about how we want to address mental illness in our society," he writes in a new blog entry. "A deeper understanding can fuel early detection, resources, prevention, rehabilitation, and cures." While there is a massive debate erupting over whether lax gun control laws or a lack of mental health support systems is the root cause of the event, Eagleman says the fact that news coverage of the assailant's mental health is being so inaccurately portrayed is concerning all on its own.

In one particular two-sentence news report of the suspect's mental condition, four different diagnoses are strung together haphazardly, Eagleman says, creating a very problematic depiction of each of the disorders. He explains how, "two of [the terms used] are different degrees of the same disorder, one of which is wrapped in quotation marks, and most of which have no plausible bearing on the Sandy Hook shootings." Eagleman says that the article leads readers to believe that Asperger Syndrome is some sort of combination of Autism and a personality disorder—which it is not—and that the use of quotation marks around personality disorder make the condition out to be a colloquialism rather than a legitimate classification of a biological disorder. Further, he says that none of the aforementioned disorders have a known relationship with violent behavior, and using the terminology in that context suggested otherwise.

It is problematic, he explains, that the information about such important mental health conditions is being so inaccurately portrayed in the media. It not only affects the public's perception of mental illness in relation to this particular event, but also their overall understanding of how brain function differs from person-to-person. As he explains at length in his book Incognito, a misunderstanding of a disease itself leads to a misunderstanding of how to treat it—which very rarely provides positive results. Eagleman, who is also Guggenheim Fellow and bestselling author, reminds readers that mental illness is real and more resources must be devoted to properly understanding how the brain works, and helping inform the public about mental health warning signs. A leading voice in the field, Eagleman stretches what we know about our mind and helps us understand why we do the things we do.

Up Next

science | December 13, 2012