WHAT YOU BELIEVE CAN HURT YOU
Keywords: Mental Illness, Biochemical Imbalances, Genetics Brain Scans, Psychotherapy
The majority of Americans believe that mental illnesses are caused by chemical imbalances, genetic dynamics and brain disorders. That is a cynical, harmful and erroneous belief. It is a belief that hurts lots of people.
I understand that the great majority of Americans believe that mental illnesses are caused by chemical imbalances, genetic dynamics and brain disorders. That is a cynical, harmful and erroneous belief. Cynical because it turns human beings into helpless victims of physiological forces over which they have no control. Harmful because it makes it less likely that people will participate wholeheartedly in psychotherapy, far and away the best treatment for mental illnesses. Harmful also because it encourages people to focus on what is not important and ignore what is important. Erroneous because it is not based on adequate scientific evidence.
There is a more hopeful, beneficial and accurate belief about the cause of mental illness. It is a belief that is held by the great majority of people in the world and which was held by Americans fifty years ago. Here it is:
The great majority of mental illnesses are essentially reactions to difficult, troubling and damaging life situations and to concerns that people have about their lives and themselves. Mental illnesses are caused by life crises, emotional distress, spiritual emergencies, difficult dilemmas, inner conflicts and various forms of overwhelm. Mental illnesses are essentially how people avoid emotional pain, protect themselves, feel more adequate and powerful, gain the illusion of control in a world in which the most dangerous things are outside of our control. Mental illnesses are reactions to significant loss and to concerns about one’s ability to live the way one wants to live. They are wake-up calls, signals that something is wrong and needs to be dealt with. Mental illnesses are the painful, uncomfortable, dangerous and debilitating emotions, thoughts and behavior that people experience in the course of dealing with the problems of life. Mental illnesses are reactions to difficult, scary, terrifying, rage-creating life situations.
This is a more hopeful belief because people have the ability to learn how to deal more effectively with life crises, emotional distress, spiritual emergencies, difficult dilemmas and overwhelm. They have the ability to learn how to manage their thoughts, emotions, intentions, perceptions and behavior in ways that will enable them to lead more satisfying lives. They have the ability to heed the wake-up call and take a serious look at their lives and what it is going to take to love more the way they want to love, work (express themselves) more the way they want to work and enjoy life more they way they want to enjoy life.
This is a more beneficial belief because it will encourage people to participate whole-heartedly in all forms of psychotherapy: cognitive-behavioral therapy, hypnotherapy, body-centered therapy, trauma-informed therapy, narrative therapy, solution-focused therapy, group psychotherapy, art and music therapy, mindfulness meditation, yoga, nutrition, exercise, support groups, help with love relationships and family relationships, help with finding satisfying and rewarding work, help with finding enjoyable and healthy ways of expressing themselves.
But what about the scientific evidence? Isn’t there evidence through brain scans that mental illnesses are caused by chemical imbalances and brain disorders? Of course, all human behavior involves biochemistry and brain function. But that doesn’t mean that the chemistry or the brain function causes anything. From what we know about how the mind and body function together it is more likely that the biochemical and brain changes are reactions to what is happening to the person, what the person is perceiving, the difficulty the person is having, the concerns the person has. That is what happens in the stress response, the most widely studied and best understood of the human mind-body dynamics. The stress response is a profound biochemical dynamic which includes the secretion of neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine and noradrenaline. But it doesn’t come out of the blue. It doesn’t just happen. Rather, it is a response by the person to some threat or to some demand that is placed upon her or him. It is a reaction to something that has happened to the person. This is in keeping with what we know about human beings. Human beings are not random organisms. They are meaning-making, desiring beings who live with a purpose. States of being such as mental illnesses don’t just come on them out of the blue. Rather, they are reactions to something that has happened, to some kind of concern, fear, need, desire, frustration.
If this clearly the case with the stress response, why wouldn’t we think it is true of depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorders and psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia?
Human beings have believed things that turned out to be wrong for a long time. There was a time when people thought the earth was flat, the sun revolved around the earth, illnesses were caused by humors and evil spirits, everything existed within an ether called phlogiston. Some of these beliefs were harmful, some not so. Time will tell the extent to which this cynical, harmful and erroneous belief about mental illness is harmful to human beings.