Biology is a common theme in the efforts to destigmatize mental health issues. We tell people to think of depression like cancer, or a broken limb: you wouldn’t mock someone going through chemo for not being able to get out of bed, right? You wouldn’t tell someone with a broken limb to just fake having a whole one until they feel better.
But Liverpool University professor Richard Bentall thinks we’re going about it all wrong, as he explains in The Guardian. Bentall suggests that focusing on biology and genetics actually encourages people to stigmatize mental illness, and discourages people from believing they can get past their mental health issues.
Research shows that an exclusively biological approach tends to increase the stigma associated with mental illness. The more that ordinary people think of mental illness as a genetically determined brain disease, and the less they recognise it to be a reaction to unfortunate circumstances, the more they shun psychiatric patients. An exclusively biological approach makes it all too easy to believe that human beings fall into two subspecies: the mentally well and the mentally ill.
Finally, a narrow biomedical approach entirely neglects the public health dimension. Given the evidence, we should be able to dramatically reduce the prevalence of mental health problems by, for example, addressing childhood poverty and inequality, figuring out which aspects of the urban environment are toxic (not surprisingly, living close to a park appears to provide some protection against mental illness), and by aiming to ensure that all our children experience benign childhoods. Some potential influences on mental health (eg the way we organise our schools) have hardly been studied. We cannot create a mentally healthier world if we spend all our time peering into test tubes.
Bentall has made no secret of the fact that he prefers approaches other than medication, so keep that in mind. But he does offer a compelling counterpoint to today’s popular biological arguments.