CHEMICAL IMBALANCES IN THE BRAIN: A MODERN MYTH?
Written by Dr. Caroline Leaf
Today, it has become commonplace to say that people have chemical imbalances in their brain, most notably a disruption in the proper production of dopamine (for “diseases” like ADHD) and serotonin (for “diseases” like depression) . These people, it is supposed, need drugs to “cure” these chemical imbalances, hence the terms “antipsychotics” or “antidepressants” .
However, in the first part of the 20th century drugs dealing with issues of the mind (as opposed to the rest of the body) were predominantly viewed as “mind-altering substances” like alcohol, and classified as sedatives or stimulants that tranquilized symptoms or the manifestations of psychosis . When the first modern neuroleptic, Thorazine (Chlorpromazine), was introduced in the 1950s, the French researchers Pierre Deniker and Jean Delay noted that the drug created a state of mind similar to Parkinson’s disease, introducing a “new neurological syndrome” in the patient . Essentially, these drugs created, not treated, chemical imbalances .
During the 1950s and 1960s a new view of these mind-altering drugs began to shape the world of mental health . Despite the lack of a conclusive body of scientific evidence these drugs came to be seen as “cures”, targeting the underlying biological mechanism of the “disease” of depression or psychosis . It was just assumed that since these drugs affected brain chemistry in a certain way, the opposite reaction must be the result of the disease, notwithstanding the fact that this has never been adequately proven . People no longer spoke of the mind-altering effects of these psychoactive drugs, and, as psychiatrist and professor at University College London Joanna Moncrieff notes, today it is incredibly difficult to find or publish journal articles on these effects, compelling professionals and researchers to look at patient websites such asaskapatient.com (which currently number close to a million) .
If the overly simplistic explanation of chemical imbalances in the brain is an insufficient explanation for mental illness, why did many people come to see these drugs as “cures”? And why do people still see these dugs as correcting an underlying chemical imbalance? There are a number of social and political factors involved in the rise of this infamous theory (remember: medicine does not occur in a historical vacuum). First, in the second part of the 20th century psychiatry was under heavy criticism . To justify and defend the profession, psychiatrists promoted a medical/disease model of mental health, which is most notably seen at the time in the publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual III, which marked a definitive shift away from psychoanalysis and talk therapy . By creating lists of disorders (again, based off no conclusive scientific evidence on the possible biological mechanisms underlying these so-called disorders), which appeared to be simple, objective ways of recognizing mental illness (somewhat like identifying a tumor), psychiatry created a self-made marketing weapon against its attackers . From now on, institutions like the American Psychiatric Association and the DSM would define what is normal, in turn telling us what it means to suffer and, essentially, what it means to be human . They medicalized misery, and today millions are suffering because of their actions, creating a public health disaster .
In fact, since it was now widely, yet incorrectly, assumed that these drugs were “curing” the supposed “disease” and not just tranquilizing the disturbed individual, forced drug treatments, institutionalization and lack of consent merely became “cures” . The responsibility and guilt of the medical processionals behind these so-called treatments was essentially sidelined . Today a psychiatrist can be praised for drugging a depressed person with mind-altering substances and, if these do not work, institutionalizing them and shocking their brain with ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) . It is even an acceptable and commonplace practice to imprison mentally ill persons, drug them and lock them in solitary confinement, compelling them to live their days marinating in their own excrement . It is therefore no surprise that mental health advocate, psychiatrist, former director of the DSM and professor at Duke University Allen Frances declares that “there has never been a worse time or a worse place to have a mental illness than in the US today” .
Unfortunately, the pharmaceutical companies, like the psychiatrists, also realized just how effective a marketing tool the chemical imbalance theory could be . Despite the recognition amongst many psychiatrists and medical health professionals that the chemical imbalance theory is not valid , drug companies like Eli Lilly still claim that “antipsychotic medicines are believed to work by balancing the chemical found naturally in the brain” . In fact, their marketing efforts, predominantly to doctors through prescription privileges, have been so successful that it is estimated that 80% of the American public alone believe in chemical imbalances in the brain . These companies would not spend billions of dollars on marketing campaigns if they did not think they would work. Additionally, a number of materialistic and reductionistic cultural assumptions have supported these developments. First, we tend to see science and allopathic medicine as the source of all truth . The doctor in his white coat is the priest of a secular age, and evidence-based clinical medicine is the bible . So, if the doctor says that these drugs are safe and will cure chemical imbalances in the brain, even though they get most of their information from the drug company representatives who offer them multiple benefits for prescribing particular medications, we believe wholeheartedly in what he or she may say and are more inclined to believe the medication will work for us . These beliefs, which ignore actual scientific results, are buttressed by a flood of distorted and biased news reports, press releases and scientific journal articles on supposed chemical imbalances, and have transformed the theory into cultural dogma . So, obviously, if we experience negative side effects and do not feel the drug is working, it must be something wrong with us, not the drug .
The situation is critical. Since primary care doctors/family physicians, not qualified psychiatric professionals, prescribe most of these mind-altering drugs, we do not ask ourselves if these doctors really understand all the implications of using these substances . Not even the psychiatrists understand these drugs ! But for many of us a doctor is a doctor: we don’t ask ourselves if the allure of money, based off biased information, may blind the him/her to the reality of the pill . It is perhaps the lure of a quick fix, a magic bullet solution to our problems, that obscures our judgment. And, sometimes, it is far easier to take a pill than to take responsibility . True change is a difficult and lengthy process. Anyway, the doctor is the professional right? He studied for years correct? Who am I, but an ordinary person? You may have not studied for years, but you still have the right to ask these questions, as you will be the one taking the drug and dealing with its side effects. You have every right to determine the potential biases and interests of your doctor, asking them if their use of the psychoactive substance in question is based on the free lunches and monetary gifts of a drug company representative . It is your brain, your body, your life. These drugs can directly affect your health, with side effects such as an increased risk of suicide , loss of sexual ability , potential brain shrinkage , agitation , insomnia , weight gain and obesity-related diseases like diabetes , lethargy , mental fog , emotional apathy , homicide , to name just a few, and taking them can turn into a matter of life and death, particularly for the elderly and children .
Of course, you may argue that these substances have helped you stabilize your life, thereby allowing you to sort out your problems. Yet there are several considerations to take into account. Most people will feel better after seeing a doctor, whether or not they are given medication at all—doctor visits can have a powerful placebo effect, particularly if the doctor is very friendly and compassionate . Moreover, we tend to visit medical professionals when we feel we just cannot cope any longer—when we are at a breaking point . Due to spontaneous healing, many people will begin feel better after this peak in their illness/issue, whether they do or do not do anything to alleviate it, and the same is true for depression and anxiety . In fact, most people recover from depression without drug treatments . And, as Irving Kirsh, professor at a number of universities and lecturer at Harvard Medical School, has shown, antidepressants are no better than placebos in terms of clinical significance, but, unlike placebos, come with a host of negative side effects in the short and long term . Lastly, we have to take into account that many things can make us feel better, including alcohol, yet we do not say that alcohol fixed “a previous brain deficiency of alcohol” . So why do we think of anti-depressants and other psychiatric drugs in this way? Even if you feel that these psychoactive substances do help you, they are not correcting an underlying chemical imbalance in your brain, and potentially creating neurological imbalances that were not there to begin with . These drugs start changing your neurochemistry within the first dose . We then have to take into consideration some very hard questions. Substances like marijuana and speed also make people feel better, but do not fix the root of the issue: why someone felt the way he/she did in the first place. Indeed, more people die from overdoses of psychiatric drugs than illicit drugs like cocaine and heroin . So, if it is okay to take psychoactive substances like antipsychotics and antidepressants because they make us feel better even though they can be dangerous, is it okay to take other, non-legal drugs because they make us feel better as well, even though they can be dangerous? It is in fact easier to withdraw from heroin than antidepressants (SSRIs, that is selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) . And what about the hundreds of thousands of people suffering under the burden of our pseudoscientific bio-centric model of psychiatry , people like those prisoners locked in solitary confinement or those individuals forced to take these drugs and institutionalized , who have no voice? They too deserve to be heard.
Indeed, we have every right to question not only our doctors but also the cultural power of neo-liberal capitalism . As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, these drugs play a particularly important role in social control, as the philosopher Michel Foucault pointed out . By emphasizing that the problem lies within an individual’s biology, we are less inclined to look at their experiences and the social context of why they are feeling the way they feel . We look at the mythical chemical imbalance instead of economic exploitation, violence and inept political structures . Children in foster care are told that they have malfunctioning brains and given these mind-altering substances, and the terrible, abusive and shocking circumstances that they have experienced are put in a mental corner . The child who moves a lot in class is forced to take mind-altering medication that is as addictive as cocaine in the long run, and we do not question whether the school systems we have in place are adequate for the diverse expression of humanity . Once again, the quick fix mentality comes into play: it is far easier to give people a drug that makes them indifferent to their socio-economic circumstances rather than fighting for social justice and changing those circumstances. Certainly, these drugs are also useful tools for neutralizing anyone who does not fit neatly into the neo-liberal capitalist framework–those people that make us uncomfortable and fearful—within and without the Church .
When we are faced with such a harsh reality, we must always remember that God has given us powerful minds, which can change the structure of our brains . Our souls are not locked in a cage by our biology . We have, after all, the mind of Christ; we are dignified beings; we are more than conquerors through Him (1 Corinthians 2:16; Romans 8:37). Although Jesus never said we wouldn’t suffer, that we wouldn’t feel pain and anguish, His death and resurrection enables us to have joy despite our circumstances (Philippians 4:11-13). Indeed, not only are pain and human suffering are a part of the world today, but also a clarion call for us as the children of God to go out and be the light in dark places (Romans 8) . If we stop sharing in the pain, as God shares our pain, how can we ever challenge injustice? We, with our sound minds, together as the Church, can choose to overcome with the help of the Holy Spirit, and in turn impact our communities, our cities, our countries and our world.
In the end, we will all be compelled to choose between the worldview presented by the modern psychiatry, a corrupted institution which claims that suffering is not normal and that those that cannot cope without medication have broken, defective brains, or the promises made in God’s word that He never gives us more than we can handle, that He has given us sound minds, that He is always with us, and that nothing can separate us from His love (1 Corinthians 10:13; 2 Timothy 1:7; Joshua 1:9; Romans 8:35-39). I will discuss these worldviews more in part 2 of this blog.
**This E-mail communication is informative and NOT individual medical advice. **DRUG WITHDRAWAL should ALWAYS be done under the supervision of a qualified professional. These drugs alter your brain chemistry, and withdrawal can be a difficult process. There are thousands of patient-run sites on withdrawal from psychoactive substances on the Internet, and many books available in stores and online. We suggest you begin looking at the resources page on Mad in America:http://www.madinamerica.com/resources/#drug_tapering.
Dr. Peter Breggin also has a brilliant book on withdrawal: Psychiatric Drug Withdrawal A Guide for Prescribers, Therapists, Patients, and Their Families. New York: Springer Pub. Co., 2013.
**For renewing your mind and finding out who you are in Christ please visit http://21daybraindetox.com (see also this VIDEO) andhttp://perfectlyyou.com (see also this VIDEO).
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0qJg-i7N-1k Good one
For my other products visit our online store: http://drleaf.com/store/
**For general information on the current state of psychiatry please visithttp://www.madinamerica.com
**If you or someone you know is being threatened with drug treatment please visit http://psychrights.org
**To report any adverse psychotropic drug effects you have experienced, and for more detailed individual drug information, please visithttps://www.rxisk.org