Brain disorder bias


I’ve heard it a thousand times:  Mental illness is a biological brain disorder.  It’s the NAMI mantra.

So it’s just like any other chronic  disease – diabetes, Parkinson’s, an enlarged heart. Since it’s brain chemistry gone awry, developing bipolar or schizophrenia isn’t the person’s fault.  He or she can’t help the mood swings, the crazy talk, the voices.

This point is much more than a medical diagnosis.  It’s a political argument.  The idea is to combat the prevalent stigma against mental illness.  The idea is to foster a more accepting understanding of persons with this disability.

NAMI, the nation’s biggest advocacy group for persons with mental illness, has for years promoted its anti-stigma campaign.  State campaigns have joined the march.   All resting on the belief that the illness is strictly a biological brain disorder.

Trouble is, the campaign seems to have backfired.

In a recent New York Times Magazine article, Ethan Watters tells the story of how American ideas about mental illness – what counts as the disorder  and how to treat it – have been spreading the globe.

Of course,  Western medicine and American medicine in particular have been expanding their global reach into the less developed countries for years.  That history has included notions of mental illness.  Inevitably, drug companies and manufacturers of medical devices have pushed their markets into these countries, following right along with the Western diagnosis of all manner of illness, mental illness included.

But Watters notes that in many developing countries, persons with mental illness fare better than their counterparts in the West.   I’ve come across research to that effect for some years.

What most interested me about the Watters article, however, had to do with the stigma.  He cites an extensive study conducted by researchers at Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama.

In that study,  subjects were given the choice of administering electric shocks to persons they had been introduced to.   Those persons had been told to tell the subjects one of two stories about “their mental illness.”   Half told the subjects of the experiment that they battle mental illness because of abuse they suffered as children.

The other half told subjects they suffered from mental illness because of a biological brain disorder.

Well, that second group didn’t, as one might expect, receive the milder electric shock from the subjects.  On the contrary, they received the more severe shock.

The researchers conclusion was that we treat people more harshly, with less regard, if we believe they are permanently abnormal.   In this case, the “disease” seems to set one apart.

Indeed, since anti-stigma programs have become commonplace, people in the general population appear more likely to keep their distance from persons with this “biological brain disorder,” regarding these persons as more unpredictable, even dangerous.

It surely would be a leap to say that the anti-stigma campaigns cause an increase in stigma against persons with mental illness.   But I find it disheartening to see evidence that these campaigns haven’t put a dent in the bias against persons with the disability.

Moreover, I’ve always felt that the biological explanation to be simplistic.  In my own research as a journalist, I’ve noticed how easily the biological label becomes a self-defining and self-limiting label.

No matter what the disability, I find it to impose limits on what anyone can do, what they can accomplish.

A diagnosis of mental illness shouldn’t sentence you to a life as a zombie.  You don’t need a precise label for your disability as much as you need support, encouragement and love.


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