Think Epilepsy Is a Mental Illness? Think Again

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It’s true that epileptic seizures are due to abnormal brain activity. But it’s wrong to think of epilepsy as a mental illness.

Michael Kentris, DO, neurologist with the Clinical Neuroscience Institute, specializes in treating patients with epilepsy. More than half his patients have epilepsy. He believes the confusion between epilepsy and mental illness may be due to two reasons.

“Seizures are different for each person,” says Dr. Kentris, and it can be disturbing for onlookers who don’t know what’s happening.

Medication Side Effects

Most people with epilepsy have their disorder under control with medication. Unfortunately, the two dozen medications available to treat epilepsy typically come with side effects, says Dr. Kentris. “Slow thinking, mood problems, irritability, depression and weight gain are all possible,” he says. To the untrained eye, these side effects may be misinterpreted as mental illness.

Seizures

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When you have a seizure, to others it may appear that you are mentally impaired. That’s because seizures, which last on average for two minutes, are often accompanied by confusion, staring, acting aggressively or slurring your speech. During a seizure some people turn blue, vomit, stiffen up, bite the tongue or scream. “Seizures are different for each person,” says Dr. Kentris, and it can be disturbing for onlookers who don’t know what’s happening. It’s not unusual to have absolutely no recollection of the seizure for up to an hour after it happened.

Because you likely have no control over your actions during a seizure, wearing a bracelet to alert others to your condition is advised, says Dr. Kentris. He knows of patients who have been arrested by unknowing law enforcement due to their unusual behavior during or following a seizure. “Generally, the more people who know and can help you safely get through a seizure, the better,” he says.

Epilepsy’s Link to Mental Health

Although the reasons are unclear, epilepsy does seem to be linked with various mental health issues. People with epilepsy have higher rates of autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms, or depression than adults without epilepsy. At the same time, people with ADHD, autism, or depression also seem to have a higher risk for epileptic seizures. Although the reasons for the similarities aren’t clearly understood, each of these conditions, including epilepsy, involve changes in brain functioning.

It's easy to get the care you need.

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Headshot of Michael R. Kentris, DO

Michael R. Kentris, DO

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