Some years ago, I saw a new commercial (watch video here), featuring a sad white bubble, narrated with a subtle phrase, “your depression may be due to a chemical imbalance.”  I turned to my 4-year old son and asked, “who’s that (motioning to the friendly looking character)?”  He seemed to already accept the fact that the bubble would be sad until he took the Zoloft. The idea of treating “chemical imbalance” has become widely accepted over the past 15 years.

Throughout my 20-year career as a clinical counselor, I have often heard, “I am going to get tested for a chemical imbalance.” Unfortunately, blood or urine tests that detect deficiencies in neurotransmitters (the chemicals that drugs like Zoloft claim to effect) do not exist. Why? Because the psychiatric community has never been able to prove that emotional problems are due to a chemical imbalance. Yes, other types of brain scans exist, such as CT and MRI scans that can detect abnormalities in the brain (such as tumors).  Newer types of brain scans that pinpoint diminished functioning, like SPECT imagery, show promise in detecting abnormal blood flow in the brain. However, mental health professionals, including psychiatrists now (sometimes reluctantly) admit, that the theory that emotional problems are induced by a chemically imbalance has been debunked.

Researchers have conducted many studies on depression for the purpose of correlating low serotonin levels.  Additionally they tried to link high dopamine levels to schizophrenia.  However none of the research concluded proof of abnormal neurotransmitters in the brain.  Robert Whitaker (2011) outlines this in his recent book, “Anatomy of an Epidemic.” Click here to see an extended lecture of these failed research efforts.  

Evidence for a chemical imbalance?

Many in the field of neuroscience and psychiatry have concluded that emotional disorders are not primarily due to brain based chemical levels.  Elliot Valenstein (1998), a professor of neuroscience at the University of Michigan concluded, “The evidence does not support any of the biochemical theories of mental illness.”  Joseph Glenmullen (2000), instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical Center also states, “in every instance where such a [chemical] imbalance was thought to be found, it was later proved to be false.”  Ronald Pies (2011) writes in Psychiatric Times, “In truth, the ‘chemical imbalance’ notion was always a kind of urban legend, never a theory seriously propounded by well-informed psychiatrists.”  

Unfortunately, the general public often believes in the chemical imbalance theory that is still widely promoted by pharmaceutical companies. The promotion of this idea has had a staggering impact, 1 in 6 use some type of psychiatric medication in the United States (Miller, 2016).  Furthermore, this disease model often keeps a person on medication for a lifetime. Here is how it works:

At CCA, we seek the best interventions for our patients, including psychiatric interventions when needed. Whether struggling with depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, trauma or even major mental illness, we believe the bio-psycho-social-spiritual approach is the best practice. With a comprehensive treatment approach, many times medication is not necessary. The theory that medications fix a chemical imbalance in the brain has not been proven.  In fact, there is evidence suggesting that long term psychiatric medication use may disrupt healthy brain functioning (Whitaker, 2011).

We encourage a cautious approach to medication.  Our goal for our clients is to have the least amount of dependence on psychiatric medication for the shortest period of time. For children, extra caution is exercised with medication being used only as a last option. With comprehensive treatment and support, it is often possible to reach a level of recovery that allows for our clients to be free from dependence on psychiatric medication.

References:

Glenmullen, J. (2000). Prozac Backlash. New York: Simon & Schuster

Miller, S. G. (2016, December 13). 1 in 6 Americans Takes a Psychiatric Drug. Retrieved from Scientific American: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/1-in-6-americans-takes-a-psychiatric-drug/

Pies, R. W. (2011, July 11). Psychiatry’s new brain-mind and the legend of the “chemical imbalance”. Retrieved from Psychiatric Times: http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/blogs/ psychiatry-new-brain-mind-and-legend-chemical-imbalance

Valenstein, W. (1998). Blaming the brain. New York: The Free Press.

Whitaker, R. (2011). Anatomy of an epidemic: Magic bullets, psychiatric drugs, and the astonishing rise of mental illness in America. New York: Broadway Books.

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