Our Approach to Mental Health Isn’t Working

Eleanor Longden was a university student when she first started hearing voices. After she was given a diagnosis of schizophrenia, a doctor told her she’d be better off with cancer instead, because it was easier to cure.

Longden’s experience of being “diagnosed, drugged, and discarded” by the health care system is not unusual. But her subsequent recovery—she is now a research psychologist completing her PhD and an international speaker on mental health—isn’t unusual, either. She still hears voices, but she doesn’t need medication to handle them.

Longden’s story challenges mainstream perceptions—that schizophrenia is a debilitating illness—and it underscores why we need to rethink the biomedical approach to mental health.

What is the biomedical approach? Put simply, it’s the tendency to see mental health problems as biological diseases of the brain: inevitable, incurable, and genetically determined. But the evidence for this model, which has come to dominate both medical practice and public opinion, is shaky at best.

For example, while genes may play a role in influencing vulnerability to trauma, there is much stronger evidence that experiences and environment have a significant impact on mental health. Children who experience poverty, abuse, and discrimination are much more likely to develop mental health problems later in life. According to clinical psychologist Richard Bentell, “the evidence of a link between childhood misfortune and future psychiatric disorder is about as strong statistically as the link between smoking and lung cancer.”

The biomedical approach can also lead us to pathologize normal human responses to suffering. It’s not surprising that people who go through divorce or unemployment may experience depression and anxiety, but needing support and services isn’t the same thing as having a disease.

– Open Society Foundations

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