There is actually no evidence that poor mental health is linked to brain chemistry. I’m not saying meds don’t help- mine certainly do!- I’m just saying that they are sold to us based on a faulty premise. We are told that seretonin for someone with depression is like insulin for someone with diabetes. That dopamine is linked to schizophrenia. Again and again, the “faulty brain chemistry” argument is pressed upon us, until most people take it as gospel. The facts read differently.
Some people would say that it doesn’t really matter how much of the argument is true. That at least the “brain illness” theory reduces stigma by treating mental illness the same as any physical illness. The fact is, though, that this simply isn’t true. I read recently about an experiment during which so-called “neurotypical” people were asked to give mild electric shock to two groups of people while they solved a puzzle. The group perceived as having “brain illnesses” were shocked far more frequently. The perception of the unwell as physically different does no favours for those experiencing the illnesses- the Blame Game goes ahead with or without recourse to discourses about brain chemistry and faulty neurons.
Besides this, this model also risks further alienating people with diagnoses such as borderline personality disorder, for which there is no specifically suggested chemical solution. It suggests that some people are Not At Fault, because they have a Brain Illness, and that some are At Fault because their problem is viewed as purely behavioural rather than psychiatric in the stricter sense. I know this because I have seen it play out in action, at work, and with my friends. We need to stop saying that brain chemistry makes a person blameless, purely because it suggests that someone experiencing the same level of distress but without the perceived chemical imbalance, is to blame.
Again, it is very important to me to note that I am not against the idea that biology plays a role in psychiatric illness. I just think that other things, things that make up a substantial part of a person’s life, are ignored in favour of chemical adjustments and theories of imbalance. Sociological factors, for example, play less and less of a role in understanding the whole of a person’s struggles. If we ignore these things in favour of simply medicating, we risk ignoring some of the most important parts.
The best service providers, for want of a better collective noun, that I have had have all seen beyond the continually referenced arguments regarding biological difference. They have sought to creatively address the wide variety of problems which both contributed to, and resulted from, my experience of mental ill health. Until recently I was fully sold on the whole “brain chemistry” argument. Now I recognise why these people were so important and so helpful: because they saw beyond it. Because they chose to spend more than the 15 minutes it takes to prescribe.
Furthermore, I don’t like being taken for an idiot. If someone is going to tell me something about faulty chemistry and simply ignore the horrendous side effects so many medications carry, they had better have a very good reason for doing so. Being sold drugs the way that we are is basically immoral because it is based on what is essentially a lie (or, to be less harsh, a concealed truth). It is not good enough to say that because the meds work, this proves that there was an imbalance in the first place. As James
Davies puts it, aspirin curing a headache is not proof that the person with the headache was low on aspirin in the blood. We need to be told the truth.