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Is Depression just a 'chemical imbalance'?

You may have been told before by a health professional or a friend that “Depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain”. In fact, this is a commonly-held belief in the medical community as evidenced by prescription medications being the first line of treatment for mental illness. Furthermore, the notion that Depression can be dealt with very quickly by popping a pill a day is a very attractive proposition to those suffering from it.

When I listen to the frustrations of many of my clients who have been through course after course of anti-depressants and related medication, I am both horrified and saddened at their experiences. There seems to be a common pattern among depression sufferers of increasing their dosage over time, hopping from one medication to another, and only experiencing relief for a certain period of time. In addition, there are also the unwanted side effects of the medications which can range from minor issues like lethargy, dullness to uncontrolled trembling and having suicidal thoughts! It leads me to wonder sometimes how much medical professionals actually understand about the  neurological effects of the psychotropic drugs they so regularly endorse.


The sad reality is that a lot of what doctors know about the medications they prescribe is provided by the pharmaceutical companies, whose motivations are fairly obvious. In many of the clients I see (and I believe I speak for many fellow psychologists), the irony is that long-term use of brain-altering medications actually lead to a deterioration of their mental and emotional functioning. The truth is, there is no clear scientific evidence whatsoever that Depression, or any other mental health issue, is caused by a chemical imbalance, or for that matter, the genes inherent in the individual. Even neuroscientists and psychiatrists who once entertained the chemical imbalance theory now consider the idea of tweaking neurotransmitter levels in the brain to be outdated. In his book “Blaming the Brain”, Dr Elliot Valenstein (Professor Emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at Michigan University) clearly explains the flaws in the chemical imbalance theory of mental illness.


While I certainly do not dispute the benefits of psychotropic medication in certain cases to support the recovery process, the present state of affairs is that there has been a gross overprescription of medications, especially to those who do not need to be on them. This consequently leads to an unhealthy dependence on these drugs, and a belief that they will not get better unless they keep taking them. One of the scariest comments I have heard from a number of clients is that they had been on these medications for so long that they do not remember what it is like to function (think, feel and act) without the medication! (It’s like they have lost a part of themselves!)


In summary, the biomedical model tends to investigate and explain various health disorders by reducing the issue to its biochemical components. However with many problems, the whole is usually greater than the sum of its parts. The idea that Depression is caused by a chemical imbalance is clearly a myth that has been perpetuated and reinforced by economic stakeholders.

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