The basis of mental illness has been up for debate in the medical community practically since the introduction of contemporary psychology in the late 1700’s, particularly in regards to whether disorders can be attributed more to biological factors or social and environmental factors.
Earlier this year, the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Department of Psychiatry published significant findings stating that five of the major psychiatric disorders – schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, autism and ADHD – can all be linked to two genes that regulate calcium levels in the brain. Since then, numerous other institutions have been building upon this discovery in the past few months to find other genetic overlaps between two or more disorders, all in the pursuit to build an ultimate biological model of mental illness.
Lead coordinators of the study believe that it could be used to help re-write the definitions of psychological conditions, reclassifying them on the basis of their genetic or neurological causes, rather than their symptoms.
Overall, it would seem that psychiatrics is gradually merging its way into becoming just a few degrees off from neurobiology.
I preface my perspective on this topic by clarifying that I have generally been opposed to the direction modern psychology has been heading, with the prevalence of over-diagnosis of certain conditions, and the “industrial” priorities of the domain. And as someone with an off-and-on background in genetics, I would typically lean affirmatively towards the strides being made to link this field with other disciplines, especially when it comes to benefiting those with debilitating conditions.
All of that said, I firmly believe that the statistical significance of these genetic findings is overstated, and by funding further research on these bases,
we are marginalizing the vital influence of social and environmental factors on psychiatric disorders.
Yes, it is unquestionable that every single thought and action ever carried out by a human has involved some form of chemical processing in the brain, but to state that biochemistry and genetic make-up is the ultimate driving force behind one’s behavior is taking the diagnosis too far.
This is reductionism at its finest on at least two different levels.
One obviously being the implication that behavioral causes can be simplified to the presence or absence of a gene. The other being that the genetic links between different disorders enable arbitrary comparisons between illnesses that should never be approached from the same psychiatric basis or treated with similar protocols.
If we are to truly build an accurate model of mental illness and develop better treatments for conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and autism, we require insights from both biological and psychological approaches.
The brain and the mind are two different units,
and if we skew towards trivializing one over the other, we are never precisely addressing the problems that thousands of individuals are afflicted with.