Debunking the “Chemical Imbalance” Theory of Depression

Blogger Phillip Hickey, PhD, has another great Mad in America post debunking the “chemical imbalance” theory of depression based on an article on Florida State University’s DigiNole Commons. The article is a very easy read and I recommend it highly for anyone who has been diagnosed with “depression” or who has ever taken an anti-depressant medication (or for clinicians).

The lie that depression was caused by a chemical imbalance in serotonin levels in the brain was propagated for decades by psychiatrists and Big Pharma. Please, let’s get the word out that this in NOT TRUE! I am so tired of patients and other clinicians continuing to repeat this urban myth.

To tell patients they have a chemical imbalance when this is not true stigmatizes them, promotes a feeling of helplessness that leads to lack of change, and lowers their already-low self-worth.

The public needs to take action to become aware and reject attempts by PCPs and psychiatrists who keep foisting this serotonin myth on them in an effort to sell drugs.

What is Depression?

Depression is merely an expectable reaction to a situation where a person has many thoughts of self-loathing, which lead to chronic high levels of “stress” (aka threat or fear.) The brain reacts to internal messages of self-criticism as a form of threat, which to the brain are processed in the same way as an external physical threat, such as being mugged. This internally generated “fight-or-flight” response cannot be sustained by the brain and body for long periods of time. The body eventually gives up and shuts down physically and numbs out emotionally, with “symptoms” of lack of motivation, excessive sleep, sadness, worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, etc.

Perhaps one day some brain chemical cause of depression might be discovered. But until then, please stop repeating the lie that unhealthy serotonin levels cause depression. Because the above explanation IS actually based on science!

Stop the “Broken Brain” Myth

James+Holmes+First+Court+Hearing+Held+Alleged+Z7oHDgrNZTRlIt appears that when James Holmes shot up that movie theater in Colorado he may have done so partly because he felt hopeless that his mental health would ever improve. Apparently, he wrote in his journal that he had been told he had a “broken brain”. He had been given a long list of diagnoses, including schizophrenia, generalized anxiety disorder and psychosis.

Few things make me angrier than hearing this sort of thing from a new patient. They tell me that they have previously been diagnosed with depression or anxiety or ADHD. Then they say something like: “I know my brain is diseased/broken/messed up and I will never get better, but I just want some coping skills to help me get through life better.”

And then nothing gives me greater pleasure than saying this: “Your brain is almost certainly not diseased or broken or messed up. It never was. Whoever told you that is completely wrong. The diagnoses that the medical profession has created for certain behaviors are not actually diseases.

“The way you are behaving is completely understandable given your life experience. Traumas, neglect, an anxious or depressed parent, or even just poor parenting can cause a fearful state in a person that can lead to behaviors now labeled as anxiety or ADHD or depression.

“I can do more than give you coping skills. I can guide you to ways that will likely make you happier and may even completely get rid of your anxiety and depression. I can’t guarantee the results — that is largely up to you — but I can guarantee that you are not diseased.”

This statement alone helps heal people because it gives them hope. It also reduces their feelings of self-blame, which is essential for change.

The core issue for people with most emotional conditions is a sense of shame or low self-worth. Is labeling them as “diseased” and making them feel outcast helping them? Not at all. In fact, a sense of isolation and loneliness is core for depressed or anxious people, so this is exactly the opposite of what we should be telling them. We should be helping them find ways to feel connected to others. I use Compassion-focused Therapy which is based on Buddhist concepts of finding universality in our experiences and common humanity.
The mental health profession, largely led by medically trained psychiatrists (MDs and DOs), has for decades attempted to make emotional conditions into medical diseases. Scientific evidence for functional or biological causes of most emotional conditions has never been found. In other words, brains experiencing anxiety and depression and ADHD are not “broken.” They are merely reacting in normal ways to trauma and fear. (More on that in “Pack Leader Psychology” and in many, many other books and research papers.)

Oh, and not coincidentally this supposed “medical model” for mental illness also helps Big Pharma sell a lot of harmful chemicals that largely have no efficacy and harmful side effects.

To the therapists and psychiatrists and primary care physicians who keep telling patients that their brains are broken:  Please make some attempt to stay current with the research in the field before you misinform patients and harm them. Their self-concept is already fragile. Telling them — falsely— that their brains are permanently “broken” can lead to disaster. As it did for all those victims of the Aurora shooting.

Was it depression or antidepressants that caused Andreas Lubitz to crash the Germanwings plane?

Was it depression or antidepressants that caused Andreas Lubitz to crash the Germanwings plane?

Antidepressant medications were found in Lubitz’s apartment, although there is no evidence he was taking them. Rather than blaming the depression, some writers are wondering if we shouldn’t blame the anti-depressants.

On the website Mad In America, David Healy, MD, argues in a blog “Winging it: Antidepressants and Plane Crashes that antidepressants double the risk of suicide. “They do so by causing psychosis, or by producing an agitation laced with suicidal or homicidal thoughts, or by producing an almost lobotomized state in which people will do things they would ordinarily never do, or by increasing blood alcohol levels if the person has had a drink.”

Remember that medical science does not know how antidepressants work or even if they do actually change brain chemistry in helpful ways. We do know that serotonin levels are not linked to depression, yet this neurotransmitter is what selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinepherine re-uptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are purported to alter.

What is most frightening to me about psychoactive drugs is this phrase from Healy’s post: “Once treated with a drug, a pilot is never the same again.” Many people do not realize that once most psychoactive drugs are ingested they permanently alter brain chemistry and functioning. Do we want pilots who are on or have been on these drugs? Or if they have been on the drugs, shouldn’t the FAA/NTSB be closely monitoring them?

Also on Mad In America, Julie Wood reports that at least 47 planes have crashed while the pilots were on antidepressants.

She provides extensive evidence of many other plane crashes that were or were likely to be suicides and shows a link between these crashes and psychoactive medication use.

Wood concludes:

  • Suicides involving aircraft are almost certainly under-reported;
  • The potential contribution of antidepressant medications to crashes is not being properly considered in crash investigations, and the FAA/NTSB are either unaware of, or are disregarding many side effects reflected in black box warnings;
  • Among the relevant side-effects that the FAA seems not to take into account are suicidal ideation and violent thoughts.
  • Commercial pilots are taking more antidepressant drugs, and lying about it more often, than the FAA acknowledges.

Big Pharma and physicians continue to pretend that psychoactive drugs are harmless “cures.”

Actually, they are far from harmless and they cure nothing.