Psych Central

Does High Fever=Brain Damage=Mental Illness?

By Kristina Randle, Ph.D., LCSW

This is a question that has begun to haunt me in the last few years. As an 11 month old baby I had Chicken Pox and Scarlet Fever which caused a sustained temperature of about 107 degrees. It is unclear as to how long I had a temp that high but it was around 2 hours. This was in 1965, the doctor told my mother there was a chance that I would have brain damage. When they had gotten my temp down and I was no longer in a coma-like state the doctor then told my mother that there was no brain damage. He then told her that the only side effect was that I had regressed back to an infantile state where I could no longer talk, walk, feed myself and I was back in diapers and on a bottle feeding. To me a regression would indicate that there was some type of brain damage sustained. It didn’t take me long to recover from the regression but I have always wondered if that was caused by brain damage from the high fever. I had a disastrous childhood and suffered from many emotional traumas. I was diagnosed several years ago as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. My doctor described it as just like I had lived in a war zone from a baby until I was about 28 years old. I have always suffered from Depression. From as far back as I can remember I have had Depression. In the last few years I was also diagnosed with Major Recurrent Depressive Disorder. I am now wondering if there wasn’t some hidden brain damage that has made me more susceptible to mental illness and Depression specifically. Do you know of any studies that have been done correlating minor brain damage with mental illness or the susceptibility to mental illness?

A. There is some research that shows that early brain damage could be a factor in the development of mental health disorders. Please keep in mind, however, that this is just one school of thought. There are many, many opinions on the subject. Others argue that mental health disorders are completely unrelated to brain damage and that they are caused entirely by environmental circumstances. Other schools of thought contend that mental health disorders are genetic. The fact is that no one knows for certain what causes mental health disorders.

Brain damage may have made you more susceptible to mental illness but other factors may have had an effect. For instance, you mentioned that you lived in a “war zone” until you were approximately 28 years old. I’m taking this to mean that you had a very difficult life. It is plausible that these difficulties could have contributed to a mental illness. It is difficult to tease out causation. The truth is you may never really know.

Perhaps for purely intellectual reasons, knowing whether brain damage could contribute to or cause mental illnesses would be helpful. But I believe what’s most important is not necessarily the cause but the actual treatment of a mental illness. My advice would be to focus on your recovery rather than trying to pinpoint the cause of your problems.

Having said that, I can appreciate your desire to learn more about this subject. If you’d like to research this topic more thoroughly, I would suggest going to the library or reading psychiatric journals. There is a good chance you’d find many, many resources on this topic. Below are some suggestions of where to look for research materials.

The American Journal of Psychiatry

High Wire Press (free access to academic research articles)

Hanover College has a comprehensive list of free psychiatric academic journals.

I hope this helps. I wish you well. Thanks for writing.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 5 Jun 2010

APA Reference
Randle, K. (2010). Does High Fever=Brain Damage=Mental Illness?. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 19, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2010/06/05/does-high-feverbrain-damagemental-illness/