Mental health as a scientific study is a relatively new phenomenon. Unlike fields such as mathematics, chemistry, and history, psychology was only birthed as an experimental study in 1854. I know that might seem like forever ago, but in the universe's grand scheme, that's like just yesterday. Of course, we will experience ebbs and flows of validity and accepted theories, as does every field, so I'd like you to read this commentary with a grain of salt. As someone that has spent the better part of her adult life studying psychology, I take things really seriously when wildly accepted narratives move from academic circles into the mainstream. Specifically, because I'm a huge advocate for the power of placebo. What we think and what we tell ourselves about reality typically becomes our reality. I'll get back to this point later.
Last week, a systematic umbrella study was released in the Journal of Molecular Psychiatry attempting to validate (or invalidate, in this case) the widely held belief that clinical depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.
I'm no medical doctor but I read all 14 pages of this study. Here are some thoughts (and a little rant.)
First and foremost, we need to address the overwhelming number of people that have been either clinically diagnosed or self-diagnosed with the mental disease of depression. It's quite alarming. Specifically, the number of people diagnosed here in the west, where, for the most part, we have access to life's basic necessities and human rights. Let's also discuss the flood of social media influencers discussing sensitive topics with little or no actual understanding of these diseases. This encourages an entire generation of vulnerable minds to accept urban myth as truth and act accordingly. It's destructive and maladaptive. Much of the time, these narratives form self-fulfilling prophecies within individuals which lead to a recurring loop of diagnosis and treatment of said symptoms.
I think my only quarrel about this narrative that depression is caused by an imbalance of chemicals in the brain is that so many people reach for medication that actually does change the chemicals in their brains. I will never be the one to discredit all of the incredible medical advancements made by scientists and doctors. It is a miracle in its own right. I have never, and will never, tell anyone to stop taking medication under the direct supervision of a medical professional. We are blessed to live in a time when science and healing form a symbiotic union. However, I would like to make a clear distinction that medicine is a miracle and the pharmaceutical industry is a business. Two completely separate entities. From my perspective, "they" (whoever "they" are) constructed an entire narrative that periods of profound sadness and an inability to mobilize your life are caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. I'd like to see more holistic means of healing these diseases through diet, exercise, community, spirituality, and art.
The study linked above discussed an insufficient amount of evidence corroborating the claim. A brilliant friend of mine (Dr. Bronson Shetayh, MD) has recently told me that within a lot of medical circles, this theory of a chemical imbalance has already been widely discredited as the sole cause of clinical depression. Although, it still appears to be widely conventional within the mainstream. Despite the fact that many medical professionals acknowledge the lack of credibility of this claim, there are still 37 MILLION people in this country on some form of SSRI (a drug used to treat depression amongst other illnesses.) That's just so wild to me. It's wild to me that millions of people have bought into the narrative that their illness is caused by a chemical imbalance. As if for hundreds of years before medical intervention people weren't treating these diseases in holistic ways. Wild.
Granted, we need to take this meta-analysis with a grain of salt. It is just that - a study that studied studies. It was not a controlled experiment. Do with that information what you will. But the fact that the internet was up in flames when this article came out just further proves that a lot of people were just as enraged as I was upon hearing this news. We have to remember that pharmaceutical intervention for the treatment of this disease is relatively new. Meaning that we don't have any long-term understanding of its physical implications intergenerational. We don't know exactly what these drugs will do to the chemical makeup of our anatomy as we continue to propagate the species.
The main neurochemical believed to contribute to the presence of depression within an individual is serotonin. According to the meta-analysis, the main areas of serotonin research provide no consistent evidence of there being an association between serotonin and depression and no support for the hypothesis that depression is caused by lowered serotonin activity or concentrations. Whether or not you ascribe to this belief, I am glad this meta-analysis surfaced. I am glad that Twitter took it and ran with it. I am glad that this discussion is finally being had and more people are waking up to the reality that we need not blindly believe some of the scientific narratives constructed- specifically in regards to something as delicate as mental health.
The bone I pick with this new wave of mental health advocates is the normalization of psychoactive drugs. I am all for seeking methods of healing and treatment. I am here for all the initiatives to end mental health stigma. I, after all, am a millennial life coach that works with young people day in and day out to help end such stigmas. I encourage all of my clients to reframe narratives and empower themselves through art, journaling, meditation, and physical exercise. I am well aware of the impact depression has on one's day-to-day life. I also understand that some medications truly do support people in times of depression and distress. I understand they save lives. Constructing a framework around treatment that involves the narrative that one's brain is "not normal" due to a "chemical imbalance" where the data has been framed in order to funnel money into an industry that does not give a CRAP about one's wellbeing is where I draw the line.
That could be my own projection on the topic so, again, take this commentary as a launching pad of discussion within your own life and between you and your medical practitioner. I'm simply offering a different voice in the echo chamber of this dialogue.
I am hoping this concept was simply a glitch in the matrix. I am hoping that this narrative of a "chemical imbalance" can be better handled in the mainstream and within diagnostic circles. I am hoping that the greed for capitalistic gain does not overcome our empathy for the human condition. I am hoping that people are more aware of the resources they listen to and approach different avenues before jumping straight into pharmaceutical intervention. I am hopeful about the direction of mental health treatment and our understanding of the complexity of human nature. I will say, however, that I do not think we are ever meant to fully understand the human mind. Consciousness is not ours to figure out, after all.
In any case, if you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of depression, please know there are many different avenues to treatment. You might not actually be as sick as the world has convinced you to be.
The national suicide hotline is 988.
Peace and Blessings, always.