A common critical refrain in mental health is that explaining mental health problems in terms of a ‘brain disorder’ strips meaning from the experience, humanity from the individual, and is potentially demeaning.
But this only holds true if you actually believe that having a brain disorder is somehow dehumanising and this constant attempt to distance people with ‘mental health problems’ from those with ‘brain disorders’ reveals an implicit and disquieting prejudice.
It’s perhaps worth noting that there are soft and hard versions of this argument.
The soft version just highlights a correlation and says that neurobiological explanations of mental health problems are associated with seeing people in less humane ways. In fact, there is good evidence for this in that biomedical explanations of mental health problems have been reliably associated with slightly to moderately more stigmatising attitudes.
This doesn’t imply that neurobiological explanations are necessarily wrong, nor suggests that they should be avoided, because fighting stigma, regardless of the source, is central to mental health. This just means we have work to do.
This work is necessary because all experience, thought and behaviour must involve the biology of the body and brain, and mental health problems are no different. Contrary to how it is sometimes portrayed, this approach doesn’t exclude social, interpersonal, life history or behavioural explanations. In fact, we can think of every type of explanation as a tool for understanding ourselves, rather than a mutually exclusive explanation of which only one must be true.
On the other hand, the strong version of this critical argument says that there is ‘no evidence’ that mental health problems are biological and that saying that someone has ‘something wrong with their brain’ is demeaning or dehumanising in some way.
“such approaches, by introducing the language of ‘disorder’, undermine a humane response by implying that these experiences indicate an underlying defect.”
“The idea of schizophrenia as a brain disorder might offer further comfort by distancing ‘normal’ from disturbing people. It may do this by placing disturbing people in a separate category and by suggesting uncommon process to account for their behaviour…”
“The fifth category… consists people suffering from conditions of definitely physical origin… where psychiatric symptoms turn out to be indications of an underlying organic disease… medical science has very little to offer most victims of head injury or dementia, since there is no known cure…”
“To be sure, these brain diseases significantly affect mental status, causing depression, psychosis, and dementia, particularly in the latter stages of the illness. But Andreasen asks us to believe that these neurological disorders are “mental illnesses” in the same way that anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia are mental illnesses. This kind of thinking starts us sliding down a slippery slope, blurring distinctions that must be maintained if we are to learn more about why people are anxious, depressed, have severe mood swings, and lose contact with reality.”
There are many more examples but they almost all involve, as above, making a sharp distinction between mental health difficulties and ‘biological’ disorders, presumably based on the belief that being associated with the latter would be dehumanising in some way. But who is doing the dehumanising here?
These critical approaches suggest that common mental health problems are best understood in terms of life history and meaning but those that occur alongside neurological disorders are irrelevant to these concerns.
Ironically, this line of reasoning implies that people without clearly diagnosable neurological problems can’t be reduced to their biology, but people with these difficulties clearly can be, to the point where they are excluded from any arguments about the nature of mental health.
Another common critical claim is that there is ‘no evidence’ for the causal role of biology in mental health problems but this relies on a conceptual sleight of hand.
There is indeed no evidence for consistent causal factors – conceptualised in either social, psychological or biological terms – that would explain all mental health problems of a certain type, or more narrowly, all cases of people diagnosed with say, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
But this does not mean that if you take any particular change conceptualised at the neurobiological level that it won’t reliably lead to mental health problems, and this is true whether you have faith in the psychiatric diagnostic categories or not.
For example, Huntingdon’s disease, dementia, 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, brain injury, high and chronic doses of certain drugs, certain types of epilepsy, thyroid problems, stroke and many others will all either reliably lead to mental health problems or massively raise the risk of developing them.
Critical mental health advocates typically deal with these examples by excluding them from what they consider under their umbrella of relevant concerns.
The British Psychological Society’s report Understanding Psychosis simply doesn’t discuss anyone who might have psychosis associated with brain injury, epilepsy, dementia or any other alteration to the brain as if they don’t exist – despite the fact we know these neurological changes can be a clear causal factor in developing psychotic experiences. In fact, dementia is likely to be the single biggest cause of psychosis.
In a recent critical mental health manifesto, the first statement is “Mental health problems are fundamentally social and psychological issues”.
This must ring hollow to someone who has developed, for example, psychosis in the context of 22q11.2 deletion syndrome (25% of people affected) or depression after brain injury (40% of people affected).
It’s important to note that these problems are also clearly social and psychological, but to say mental health problems are ‘fundamentally’ social and psychological, immediately excludes people who either clearly have changes to the brain that even critical mental health advocates would accept as causal, or who feel that neurobiology is also a useful way of understanding their difficulties.
All mental health problems are important. Why segregate people on the basis of their brain state?
The ‘not interested in mental health problems associated with brain changes’ approach tells us who critical mental health advocates exclude from their zone of concern: people with acquired neurological problems, people with intellectual disabilities, older adults with dementia, children with neurodevelopmental problems, and people with genetic disorders, among many others.
I’ve spent a lot of time working with people with brain injury, epilepsy, degenerative brain disorders, and related conditions.
Humanity is not defined by a normal brain scan or EEG.
Mental health problems in people with neurological diagnoses are just as personally meaningful.
Social and psychological approaches can be just as valuable.
If your approach to ‘destigmatising’ mental health problems involves an attempt to distance one set of people from another, I want no part of it.
What a more inclusive approach shows, is that there are many causal pathways to mental health problems. In some people, the causal pathway may be more weighted to problems understood in social and emotional terms – trauma, disadvantage, unhelpful coping – in others, the best understanding may more strongly involve neurobiological changes – brain pathology, drug use, rare genetic changes. For many, both are important and intertwine.
Unfortunately, much of this debate has been sidetracked by years of pharmaceutical-funded attempts to convince people with mental health difficulties that they have a ‘brain disease’ – which often feels like adding insult to injury to people who may have suffered years of abuse and exclusion.
But what’s under-appreciated is the over-simplified ‘brain disease’ framework also rarely helps people with recognisable brain changes. Their mental health difficulties reflect and incorporate their life history, hopes and emotional response to the world – as it would with any of us.
So let’s work for a more inclusive approach to mental health that accepts and supports everyone regardless of their measurable brain state, and that aims for a scientific understanding that recognises there are many pathways to mental health difficulties, and many pathways to a better future.