Conditions misinterpreted as mental disorder – 4: Epilepsy

Conditions misinterpreted as mental disorder – 4: Epilepsy

“Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. We will one day understand what causes it, and then cease to call it divine. And so it is with everything in the universe.” – Hippocrates

Hippocrates seemed to be aware that epilepsy would continue to be misinterpreted by people as a mental illness. And, till date, it is more often perceived as a sign of a mental problem rather than a neurological disorder. Epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disorder in the United States.  As per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2012, nearly 1.8 percent of adults aged 18 years and older were diagnosed with epilepsy and 1 percent of adults aged 18 years and older are living with active epilepsy. However, it is not an adult’s disease and has affected about 460,000 children aged 0-17 years in 2013.

Unlike the general belief, epilepsy is not a mental illness. It is caused when clusters of nerve cells or neurons present in the brain send wrong or abnormal signals, which causes strange sensations, muscle spasms, convulsions or seizures. It can also cause sudden and recurrent episodes of loss of consciousness too.

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder

With the characteristic trait of frequent and unpredictable seizures, some people believe that epilepsy is caused by an underlying fever or an unstable mind. A dig into the history suggests that the state was perceived as divine due to spiritual possession. However, the new age studies and research on the subject revealed that epilepsy is a neurological disorder, affecting people of all age, especially young children and older adults.

Epilepsy is considered to be one of the most common causes of disability in people. Notably, the seizures caused are not similar every time and may also vary from person to person. Seizures may be triggered by lack of sleep, stress or hormonal changes and can result in collapse or unexplainable emotions. Epilepsy can also be caused by an illness, abnormal brain development or brain damage due to tumor, alcoholism, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, heart attack, brain injury, traumatic event or prenatal injury.

Co-occurrence of epilepsy and mental illness

While it is true that epilepsy is not a mental disorder, however, there are several mental illnesses that can co-exist. With attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as the highest prevalent mental disorder in people with epilepsy, other conditions like depression, anxiety and psychosis are also common with epilepsy patients.

The co-existence of these mental conditions not only play a major role in misguiding people towards believing epilepsy as a mental disorder, but also create disruption in its treatment, especially by either deteriorating the quality of a patient’s life or by impacting the response to antiepileptic drugs (side effects). Frequent seizures also increase the vulnerability for mental disorders.

Frequent seizures are certainly an alarm to check for epilepsy, however, experiencing seizure for one time does not confirm the existence of epilepsy. Also, it is important to note that patients of epilepsy may experience either focal seizures or generalized seizures. Focal seizures are characterized by hallucination, vomiting and sudden incomprehensible emotional behavior whereas generalized seizures may result in muscle spasms and even collapse. During diagnosis, it is also important to check for any underlying mental condition that may be aggravating or worsening the condition.

Road to recovery

As epilepsy and mental disorders can co-exist, it is important to seek treatment for both at the right time. Epilepsy can be treated with medication, surgery and diet control, mental conditions such as depression and ADHD require a comprehensive treatment within a controlled environment.

If you or a loved one is suffering from any kind of mental illness (with or without epilepsy), you can contact the California Mental Health Helpline to learn about mental health facilities in California. You may call our 24/7 helpline number (855) 559-3923 or chat online with our representatives who can guide you to one of the best mental health centers in California.

Read the other articles of the series “Conditions misinterpreted as mental disorder:”

  1. Homosexuality
  2. Oedipus complex
  3. Cannibalism
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