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Mental Illness is Not Simply a Brain Disease

Mental Illness is Not Simply a Brain DiseaseLast month, Andrew Brown writing for the UK’s Guardian, noted when Professor David Nutt kept referring to depression as a “brain disease” on a popular UK television program.

We commend Andrew Brown for his calling out Professor Nutt in trying to dumb down the portrayal of mental disorders to simply “brain diseases.” Mental disorders remain complex disorders that involve all aspect of a person’s functioning and life — their brain and biology, their psychological makeup and personality, and their social interactions and relationships with others. The cause isn’t just one of these things in the vast majority of people who have a mental illness — the cause is all of these things, in differing proportions.

I’ve written about this in the past and in fact, I tag it as one of the top 10 myths of mental illness — because it still is. Even well-meaning family physicians and psychiatrists still refer to the false chemical imbalance theory as though it were fact. A theory, by the way, that has never enjoyed strong research support.

Depression, like all mental disorders, is caused by a complex and still poorly-understood confluence of a combination of factors. Anyone who says, “We know what causes depression, it’s _______________,” is either badly misinformed or simply ignorant. The truth is that we don’t know what causes depression. It’s not genetics or a single gene. It’s not simply a poor upbringing or horrible family situation. It’s not just a “depressive” personality or some other psychological factor. It’s most definitely not simply a “brain disease,” that is a disease of the brain that can be cured by simply shocking it (as in ECT) or drugging it (as in giving it antidepressants).

It doesn’t help, either, when major national mental health organizations refer to mental disorders as being “serious medical illnesses,” as though medicine could explain everything and is the only profession that offers treatment for them. Medicine is a part of the understanding and treatment of mental disorders, but it is not the whole picture. Proper treatment nearly always requires other professions — especially those from psychology and even social work — to be clinically effective. If you’re getting treatment for something serious like depression only from a physician (who isn’t a psychiatrist), you’re getting some of the worst treatment possible for it.

There are a lot of clinically-proven, effective treatments for depression and other mental disorders. Yes, they include the use of psychiatric medications when appropriate. But more often than not, they should also include the use of psychotherapy, and other therapeutic modalities and support when appropriate (such as social skills training programs, day programs, support groups, etc.).

Mental disorders are not simply brain diseases. If you hear a professional referring to them as such, you should take everything else they say with a grain of salt.

Read the full article: Depression is not a ‘brain disorder’

Mental Illness is Not Simply a Brain Disease

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Mental Illness is Not Simply a Brain Disease. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 24 Jul 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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