The Wilson Quarterly has an excellent article about the rebirth of interest in how social experiences affect the development of schizophrenia.
It’s written by the brilliant anthropologist Tanya Marie Luhrmann, who tracks how the enthusiasm for a completely neurobiological explanation for the disorder has now begun to wane.
It’s worth saying that this extreme neurobiological focus has really been an American phenomenon.
While it’s true to say that psychiatry has taken a distinct neurobiological turn across the world, the mantra that ‘schizophrenia is a brain disease’ and only needs to be understood in terms of brain function has been most strongly championed in the United States.
For somewhat mysterious reasons, and not without a touch of irony, American psychiatry has been subject to quite striking mood swings over the past century.
Subsequently, a dominant current of thought emerged that mental illnesses could be understood as ‘brain disorders’ – a concept massively promoted and funded by drug companies. Searches for the ‘gene for schizophrenia’ and the ‘brain circuit for depression’ were all the rage, even if they seem a little naive in hindsight.
In Europe, however, social psychiatry – where mental disorders are seen within a social context – remained widely taught. In the UK, it had more an an epidemiological flavour, where on the continent it was more focussed on analysing the cultural meaning of mental illness.
Nevertheless, Luhrmann’s article is an excellent overview of how psychiatry has started to look ‘beyond the brain’, although we’d hope it doesn’t lose sight of it while gazing at the horizon
My only significant problem was that the article repeats the ‘people with schizophrenia do better in the developing world’ claim, which is so over-general as to be useless.
Other than that though, an excellent incisive article and one of the best pieces you’re likely to read in a while.
Link to ‘Beyond the Brain’ in The Wilson Quarterly (thanks Peter!)