For years now, the social perspective surrounding mental health has been shifting. The importance of practising positive mental health has been continuously highlighted in recent years, with students frequently leading the charge. Student and university campaigns like Trinity’s mental health week and UCD’s mind, body and soul campaign have worked to place mental wellbeing on a pedestal of society-wide and on-campus importance. Although this change in perspective has created a positive impact on campuses, much of the focus has ultimately been repetitive: highlighting depression and anxiety, while seldom ever mentioning lesser-known mental health disorders that many students suffer from.
The mind is one of the most beguiling phenomenons known to us. When healthy, it gives rise to all that we as humans know: our personalities, feelings of joy, sadness, anger, love. It is what drives our consciousness, our interests, our passions. It is also responsible for driving basic human functioning. Think of moving your arm, and you have often done so before even fully conceiving the idea. And so, it is clear that the human mind is at the core of what makes us ourselves. Despite being frustratingly intangible and abstract, there is no doubt that it is of colossal importance. Our thoughts are inseparable, completely intertwined and wholly dependent on our brains, and an unhealthy brain can lead to an unhealthy mind. It also follows, unbeknownst to most people, that an unhealthy mind can lead to an unhealthy brain.
Psychosomatic disorders highlight the incontrovertible truth that being unwell mentally can be just as severe, if not more severe, than being unwell in any other way. Psychosomatic, also known as psychogenic, disorders are disorders which present with physical symptoms, yet have no pathological causation. That is to say that one may present with seizures, paralysis, infection, pain, amongst many other things, yet there is no biological driver for these symptoms.
Those diagnosed with psychosomatic disorders often face unwarranted suspicion, even within the medical community
However, this by no means suggests that the patient is suffering any less. In fact, symptoms caused by psychosomatic disorders often cause greater unhappiness to patients, as the inability to find an organic cause results in distress and desperation. A lot of controversy surrounds these disorders: how can it be possible that one can become bedridden or experience pain for “no reason”? Well then, I might ask, how is it possible that your voice shakes when you are nervous, or how is it that your hearts races when you feel scared?
These are all physiological manifestations of an emotion, yet we completely accept them. And so it is completely plausible, albeit tricky to understand, that an extreme stressor may manifest physically. Despite this, however, those diagnosed with psychosomatic disorders often face unwarranted suspicion, even within the medical community. They are often told that there’s nothing wrong with them or that their symptoms are being “made up”.
Patients who have been diagnosed with psychosomatic disorders often face a lack of understanding from the people around them.
The mind and brain are not two distinct entities: rather they are interdependent on one another
And so, those afflicted with most psychosomatic disorders often have no choice but to remain in an isolated room for prolonged periods of time. This of course, can be very stressful and only makes the patient feel much worse.
Slowly, it has become evident to scientific and medical communities that stressors can affect the body in the extreme, manifesting through a myriad of symptoms and debilitating those they afflict in ways that most would not think possible. We accept that our hands may shake from nerves when we must give a speech, but find it inconceivable that this physiological manifestation of an emotion can present in an extreme way, be it through paralysis, seizures or tiredness.
But the mind and brain are not two distinct entities: rather they are interdependent on one another. And so, as a society, it has become ever more important to meet those who suffer from psychosomatic disorders, as well as any other mental health issue, with kindness and understanding.
Correction: February 9th, 2019
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly described chronic fatigue syndrome as a psychosomatic disorder. According to the Mayo Clinic, while the cause of the syndrome is unknown, there are several theories, ranging from viral infections to psychological stress. Some experts believe chronic fatigue syndrome might be triggered by a combination of factors.