On the Myth of the Chemical Imbalance


In this piece for Psychology Today, Mark L. Ruffalo critiques the chemical imbalance theory of mental disorder and examines why the chemical imbalance myth persists today despite being widely refuted by a number of prominent psychiatrists.

“Why does the chemical imbalance theory live on despite the fact that it is well-established to be a myth? The idea of a chemical imbalance is a simple and succinct way for psychiatrists and other mental health professionals to communicate to patients and their families that psychiatric conditions are ‘real,’ regardless of whether they are medical or nonmedical. ‘Chemical imbalance’ provides a seemingly scientific-sounding explanation to human problems that have historically evaded scientific inquiry. To this day, there exists not a single biological test for any mental disorder, despite claims to the contrary. To assert that a patient has a chemical imbalance is to validate and confirm the experience of the suffering person.”


  1. I agree that there is no underlying biological cause to mental illness. So it is odd that the author chose to use the phrases “psychiatric conditions” and “psychiatric patients” in an article that refutes psychiatry’s fundamental claims to mental illness. There can be no actual “psychiatric conditions” or “psychiatric patients,” only conditions and patients whom psychiatrists wrongly claim to be treating.

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    • Thank you for your comment. While I agree that the problems we label “psychiatric disorders” are metaphorical in their nature (and nondiseases), like Szasz I resort to the traditional terminology out of convenience. A much better term is “problems in living.” And the use of the term “patient” is intentional. A person need not suffer from any disease to be a patient, though the term “prisoner” is more appropriate for those cast into the patient role unwillingly.

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      • I like the term “problems in living” – the current system only exaggerates a person’s stress level by giving them labels and referring to these issues as “long-term conditions that require medications.” I came across an article titled “Why do you take those pills, Mummy?’ Explaining mental illness to my six-year-old” where the chemical model is totally accepted – I thought of commenting but then realized that I do not know how and where to start the conversation.

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  2. “To assert that a patient has a chemical imbalance is to validate and confirm the experience of the suffering person.” As a person who was defamed with a “mental illness,” and was lied to and told I had a “chemical imbalance,” merely because I was concerned that my child may have been abused, and I wanted to talk to someone to try to mentally come to grips with such a horrific possibility. I don’t see how lying to someone and claiming they have a “chemical imbalance” in their brain has anything to do with validating and confirming “the experience of the suffering person.”

    Quite to the contrary, all the “mental health professionals” I spoke to about my concerns invalidated and denied my concerns for my child. And once the medical evidence of the abuse was finally handed over by some decent and disgusted nurses in my PCPs office, and I confronted my psychiatrist with this fact. The scum bucket wanted my child drugged, too. Despite the fact I’d long since gotten my child away from the child molesters, and his troubles in school had subsided, as well the other common symptoms of child abuse.

    And this is a highly common problem for today’s “mental health industry” given that today, “the prevalence of childhood trauma exposure within borderline personality disorder patients has been evidenced to be as high as 92% (Yen et al., 2002). Within individuals diagnosed with psychotic or affective disorders, it reaches 82% (Larsson et al., 2012).”

    Which, of course, means that the primary actual function of today’s “mental health” industries are, in fact, covering up child abuse, by turning child abuse victims into the “mentally ill” with the psychiatric drugs. Most of today’s “mental health professionals” belong in jail as pedophile protecters. But kudos to your industries for your industries’ role in creating the “pedogate” problem. This country needs to start arresting the pedophiles, instead of having the “mental health professionals” defame and further torture child abuse victims and their concerned parents.

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  3. It’s good to see this finding its way into PT. However

    The chemical imbalance theory offers something else, however, and that is the opportunity for the psychiatric patient to limit responsibility for his condition.

    Yes, though this risks blaming the victim if applied across the board. The missing corollary is that it provides the ruling system the opportunity to evade responsibility for the conditions that drive people mad.

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