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!

2 thoughts on “Debunking the “Chemical Imbalance” Theory of Depression

  1. Yes, I am sure there is a lot of over prescribing of drugs,but surely chemical and hormonal balance can cause depression? I get depressive symptoms related to hormonal cycles and I suffered from post natal depression after my 4th baby. I have been to therapy and have successfully dealt with a lot of issues over the years, like forgiveness etc. I am a relatively happy ,contented person, happily married with a great family. There are more and more days when I can feel actual physical changes in my body and this includes issues like sadness, anxiety etc. particularly as I have pre-menopausal. I would be interested to hear your comments.

  2. Sorry for the delay in responding. I am not an expert on the effects of hormones on depression. Certainly thyroid conditions and menstrual and menopausal changes can also be linked to depression due to hormone changes. Checking with a physician is essential if you suspect there is a physical cause of depression. That being said, for most people there is no hormonal link to depression. Depression is largely or entirely due to feelings of worthlessness, accompanied by negative thinking, leading to helplessness and hopelessness. Shame and loneliness, with a fear that this experience will never change, is at the root of depression for most people. Even postpartum can often be linked to a mother’s feeling overwhelmed by the responsibilities of motherhood — aka fear — and feeling inadequate to handle the tasks and fearful of failure. Fear is a powerful trigger of hormones such as cortisol, the stress hormone. We have much to learn about how our bodies respond physically to fear, shame, loneliness, etc.

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