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Is epilepsy a mental illness?

Epilepsy is not a mental illness. It is caused by electrical changes in the brain. However, epilepsy is often considered a mental health problem for many reasons. Many cultures consider epilepsy as being caused by supernatural forces, such as witchcraft, similar to some types of mental illness. In partial seizures, odd behaviours may be observed. Epilepsy can cause great stress on a person. Many people with epilepsy develop emotional problems. Psychoses, depression and suicidal behaviour are all commoner in people with epilepsy. Finally, one type of seizure in adults (the conversion seizure) is entirely psychological in origin. Thus, it is important not to ignore the mental health needs of people with epilepsy.

In some persons a specific medical problem can be the causer of their epilepsy. These are:
• head injuries leading to bleeding in the brain;
• alcohol withdrawal;
• infections in the brain, such as meningitis, tapeworm, malaria, tuberculosis and sleeping sickness;
• AIDS, through direct infection by the virus, or secondary infections such as fungal infections, or tumours;
• brain tumours;
• low blood sugar levels;
• severe liver or kidney disease.

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One Response to “Is epilepsy a mental illness?”

  • Jeffrey Hatcher says:

    I cannot help but express my concern about your reticence for classifying epilepsy as a mental illness. Your politically correct stance has directly interfered with my quality of life as a temporal lobe epileptic. Epilepsy is NOT MONOLITHIC! That is to say when you categorize it as a single disease, you may be portraying its physiology in an accurate manner, but we know that from a psychological point of view, this blanket categorization is unjustifiable.

    Occipital epilepsy may be best understood as non-mental.

    Parietal epilepsy may be best understood as primarily non-mental.

    However, the behavioural, cognitive, and emotional consequences of temporal and frontal epilepsies are best understood as a mental illness. Why? Because medicine is as much art as it is science. Psychiatry andf psychology have been marginalized in epileptology, and this abscence can be attributed, in part, to political correctness. 

    If my temporal lobe epilepsy had been treated as a mental illness I might have 1) been coached as to how to work professionally with frequent amnesia; 2) been educated about the behavioural consequences and warning signs of psychoses stemming from "forced normalization"; 3) been informed about how to obtain reasonable accomodation in my workplace re: provoking agents, shift schedules, and other stress factors; and 4) received more medical insurance coverage (!!!) for psychological services. I have received little help in any of these fields, and I attribute a substantial part of  the cause to peoples' routine mantra that epilepsy is not a mental disease.

    Epilepsy is best understood as a variety of largely distinct diseases loosely categorized by the site of epileptogenesis. Sometimes it is a mental disease, and sometimes it is not. However, your gross categorization directly interferes with my ability to get the best medical treatment available.

    Jeffrey Hatcher, PhD


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