What is the Chemical Imbalance Theory? I want to understand the infamous “Chemical Imbalance Theory” of mental illness better. And if you clicked on this post I bet you do too.
I specifically want to highlight the research by medical professionals who have clearly debunked it – in layman’s terms so no one reading this blog is ever manipulated by the fantasy of it again.
I am not saying no one should ever take medications for a mental illness, etc. But that no one should ever think taking a prescribed psychotropic med is treating – oops, I mean CORRECTING – an identifiable imbalance in their brain. It’s not.
Even normal folks brains are going to be ‘imbalanced’ at times… let’s think more clearly about it. And treating illnesses with things that are not fully proven scientifically but have empirically found to be helpful or to lessen pathological symptoms is nothing new.
Why Is the Chemical Imbalance Theory Bunk?
Your brain (and all the things that make up its functioning) may be imbalanced… but there most likely (being sarcastic) are no lab tests as scientific proof showing you are ‘lacking in serotonin or that your levels are low’, ‘Prozac-deficient’, ‘lithium-deficient, ‘low on dopamine or norepinephrine’, etc.
Related post: Lithium Strengthens Brain Cells.
That is what ‘debunking the myth of the Chemical Imbalance Theory’ means, from my understanding. Debunking as in showing that the theory is false yet was (and still is from what I’m learning interacting in bipolar groups) being promoted as scientifically proven.
Related post: How Was the Chemical Imbalance Theory Developed?
Therefore you are really being given a medicine that is correcting something wrong with your brain and that will help to fix it. The proposition that taking lithium for bipolar disorder, as an example, is the same thing as taking insulin for diabetes.Taking Insulin for Diabetes is Not The Same as Taking Lithium for Bipolar Disorder. Click To Tweet
Unfortunately this is a lie. And again, I am not saying meds may not be of use for some people – lithium helps many who have severe mood swings – but that if you are told there is credible science proving it is treating an identifiable medical problem… you are being lied to.
When you went to your psychiatrist did they have you get blood labs to show you are lithium-deficient? Of course not. Do you think endrocinologists meet with a patient, listen to ‘blood sugar symptoms’ they may be having and then give the patient a prescription for insulin to go fill at the nearest pharmacy?
Then follow-up with the patient i.e. see how their medical treatment is doing (helping or worsening) their supposed diabetes by another chat session and see how the person’s reported blood sugar issues are doing now?
Then take a bunch of this empirical evidence and claim that ‘insulin treats an imbalance in the body’ and is therefore now scientifically proven as a treatment for diabetes? No. See my point? Do you understand now the comparison (or lack thereof) which is often used to get a patient to be compliant with psychiatric drug treatments?
What is the Chemical Imbalance Theory?
So what is the theory, how did it come to be and what do medical professionals say about it (who do the grueling behind-the-scenes work, not just write about it on a blog).
Is it valid? Bunk? Been discredited? An intentional scientific lie and cover-up with the primary intent of profitting from ‘chemical imbalance fixing’ (what psychiatrists will tell you that prescription of Prozac, Lithium, Ritalin for your kid, etc. is doing)
The below is quoted from the article: “Chemical Imbalance Theory of Depression – Still Promoted but Still Unfounded”:
“A long overdue debate is raging about the chemical imbalance theory of depression. Having been deluged with this idea for two decades now, the general public has come to believe that it is a scientifically proven fact.”
“An LBC radio presenter recently announced that he had suffered from depression and he knew it was a chemical imbalance. ‘All the goodness is flushed out of the brain [and you have to] top it up now and again; that’s why you need medicine,’ is how he expressed it.”
“Pharmaceutical industry propaganda has led the way in advocating this view, but the medical profession continues to endorse it too.”
“On 18th March 2014, viewers of This Morning, a national UK television programme were advised by the programme’s resident General Practitioner, Dr Chris Steele, that depression consists of a chemical imbalance in the brain caused by depletion of serotonin.”
Who to believe and what to believe?
An excellent write-up similar to what I am doing here but more detailed and by a psychologist who uses quotes from various professional sources is this article on the Mad in America website by Philip Hickey, PhD.: The Spurious Chemical Imbalance Theory is Still Alive and Well.
Read that to get a more detailed critique of the theory and how psychiatrists have been using it to manipulate patients and the public i.e. saying they don’t really believe it, then stating it as scientific fact, etc.
There are a TON more articles on the subject – and books – so if you are not convinced from reading this post and many other articles on the Web, do some more research.
I think my value is in understanding the rock and a hard place the PATIENT is in – not the cushy, plush seat the psychiatrist holds in the patient-therapist relationship.
And Manic Depression is not fake, phony, someone wanting attention, someone recovering from addiction or sexual abuse… it is a very real physical illness.
A physical illness that has primary symptoms identified (presently) as mental. So how else would you understand it from a medical standpoint than something going on with the functioning of the brain and those things in the brain that effect mood i.e. contribute to the highs and lows of the illness.
Your Brain Chemicals May Be Affecting Mood But Doctors Do Not Know Why or How
That all makes sense. As someone with Bipolar 1 Disorder who has lived with it for 30 years I do believe I do have a form of chemical imbalance at times (I am pretty normal most of the time, now that I am past the worst of my early years of bipolar hell)
But I do not – and never have – bought the phony pony and cart pharmaceutical circus explanation that the source of my illness states are an identifiable lack of this or that and that a medication will cure me. But I also knew that was the only option for treatment available to me at the time.
I kind of had to buy into it, and wanted to believe it was true (or would prove to be somehow true and I would be helped by the recommended treatment) even though logically it didn’t sit right with me. But I wasn’t a psychiatrist… I was the patient.
I wanted to believe what I was told and knew I needed to take medications when younger and was very compliant with psychiatric treatment. Did I get well? No. I got sicker in general (large doses of lithium for a year, lack of response or dangerous side effects from other meds) and had to take myself off the lithium without any medical supervision.
Related post: Drug Resistant Bipolar Disorder.
Note: An exception to the above is when had to be hospitalized for out of control mania or severe depression (usually a mix) – then the meds worked miracles and I did not become institutionalized or relegated to the back ward of some looney bin. I came out of the psychosis or alterered state quickly, and was released soon after.
Psychotropic Medications Help Some People So the Chemical Imbalance Theory Must be True
Even if the mental health professional – psychologists and mental health advocates also play this game – thinks it is in the patients best interest to say things they know are not true like that the Chemical Imbalance Theory is valid and scientifically proven… it is still a lie.
And to use this lie to keep folks on medications that are not medically proven to be a treatment for their symptoms and are proven to cause serious side effects is unethical at the very least.
I want bipolar disorder (i.e. Manic Depression) to be better understood from a biological standpoint, and for others to have better care by psychiatrists and doctors for mood disorders than I was given when I became ill.
Or at least more options other than just brain damaging psychotropic medications.
Photograph of Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev is an image in the public domain on Wikipedia.