Brain on Fire

Cahalan, Susannah (2012). Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness. New York: Free Press.

A great book with an important message.

The author suffered severe psychiatric problems, but the cause was medical, not psychiatric. The disease, NMDA autoimmune encephalitis, was the culprit. Distinguishing a psychological cause and a physical cause is important in the psychology world. Far too often practitioners give a psychiatric label without searching for a medical problem. She makes it clear we must distinguish the two. The illness Ms. Cahalan suffered can cause psychiatric problems such as bipolar, schizophrenia, psychotic, panic disorder, and others.

I bought this book when I was writing my book, Depression and Other Mental Illnesses Caused by Medical Diseases, and it gave me the motivation to go on. Her disease is rare but proves it’s wrong—downright disheartening—to attach a psychiatric label to a physical illness. Many medical disorders produce psychological problems, and this book should bring awareness to psychiatrists and psychologists. As you read this book, you’ll learn how difficult and expensive it can be to find the right help.

The author’s writing is refreshing. She writes like a novelist, e.g., (1) she learned the details of her “psychotic-like” state from the diaries of her supportive family and her boyfriend. And, (2) the style. She divides the book into three sections which novelists often do. She should write a novel. Recovery took many months despite the book’s subtitle: My Month of Madness. From the start of her illness through recovery took almost a year. You can read her columns in the New York Post. Looks like she’s recovered.

I’m sure her book will help others to look for this disease in their loved ones. May it encourage doctors and psychologists to think “medical disease” rather than “psychological problem. Yes, there are psychological symptoms when diseases strike, but doctors must treat the real cause and avoid the psychiatric label. The latter often leads to incorrect treatment and untold suffering.

For me, the book was inspiring.