The biology behind mental health

There’s a physical science behind the healing of broken bones, the correction of blood sugar levels and the repairing of blocked arteries. There’s also a physical science behind treatments that can improve mental health.

Professor of counseling Edward Shaw, former professor and chairman of radiation oncology and neuroscience researcher at Wake Forest School of Medicine, combines years of experience on the front lines treating brain tumors in children and adults with counseling expertise to teach the first-year seminar, “Contemporary Issues in Medicine and Mental Health.”

His course offers an unusual opportunity for freshmen to explore the biological processes that can affect mental health through the insights of a physician, researcher and counselor.

May is Mental Health Month

“As a brain tumor doctor, I diagnosed and treated physical illnesses caused by things that have gone amiss in the central nervous system,” says Shaw. “Understanding the brain’s structure and function allows us to understand mental health as well as mental illness. Surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are the tools used to treat brain cancer. As a licensed professional counselor, we promote wellness and mental health through talk therapy, exercise, sleep and mindfulness though some individuals need medication. By walking with an individual on their journey to better mental and physical health, we help them cope with their mental illness.”

In class, Shaw teaches undergraduates the biology behind mental health. For example, the class studied the abnormalities in the brain that contribute to the symptoms seen in autism spectrum disorder. By learning about “mirror neurons,” structures in the brain’s frontal lobes that are involved in empathy and social reciprocity, students were able to understand why children with autism are challenged in relationships.

“For some people, good mental health may rely on treating the biological causes behind the disease,” says Shaw. “For example, those with severe depression may benefit from antidepressants that boost the level of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood. But the mystery and stigma surrounding mental health can deter people from seeking the help a mental health practitioner can provide.”

First year student Zhijun Wang plans to use what she’s learned in Shaw’s class to help the children she serves through the Winston-Salem Adapted Arts and Science Program Club — an organization for school-aged children in the community suffering from mental and physical disorders, such as autism.

“I want to make these children happy, give them all my love and help with their recovery,” Wang says. “Without proper knowledge about their struggles, I wouldn’t be able to accomplish any of that.”

In his class, Shaw also introduces students to the health and human services minor — one academic pathway for students interested in careers in medicine, social work, nutrition science and speech pathology.

It may seem surprising that the minor is offered through the counseling department but Philip Clarke, assistant professor of counseling, says human services professionals need to develop the effective listening and interpersonal skills, multicultural competence and understanding of ethical practice that is taught in this academic discipline.

His students also say Shaw teaches the principle that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

“Professors who believe in you make you believe in yourself even more,” says Manal Ahmidouch, who plans to pursue a career in medicine. “Dr. Shaw wants us to change the world, and I fully intend to.”

Categories: Faculty, Research, Teacher-Scholar, Top Stories