Do You Still Believe in the “Chemical Imbalance Theory of Mental Illness”? | Bruce Levine, PhD


From CounterPunch: “The jettisoning of the chemical imbalance theory should have been uncontroversial twenty-five years ago, when it became clear to research scientists that it was a disproved hypothesis. In Blaming the Brain (1998), Elliot Valenstein, professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan, detailed research showing that it is just as likely for people with normal serotonin levels to feel depressed as it is for people with abnormal serotonin levels, and that it is just as likely for people with abnormally high serotonin levels to feel depressed as it is for people with abnormally low serotonin levels. Valenstein concluded, ‘Furthermore, there is no convincing evidence that depressed people have a serotonin or norepinephrine deficiency.’ But how many Americans heard about this?

In a 2007 survey, 84.7 percent of 262 undergraduates believed it ‘likely’ that chemical imbalances cause depression. While I cannot locate a more recent survey, my experience with patients, the media, and even many doctors is that the majority of them continue to believe in the chemical imbalance theory of depression.

Somewhat analogously, a 2015 survey reported that 42 percent of all Americans—and 51 percent of Republicans—continue to believe that WMDs were found in Iraq. Once attached to a belief, it is difficult for many people to let go of it. Carl Sagan, a fierce advocate of skeptical inquiry, observed, ‘One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken.’

. . . Apparently, authorities at the highest levels have long known that the chemical imbalance theory was a disproven hypothesis, but they have viewed it as a useful ‘noble lie’ to encourage medication use.

If you took SSRI antidepressants believing that these drugs helped correct a chemical imbalance, how does it feel to learn that this theory has long been disproven? Will this affect your trust of current and future claims by psychiatry? Were you prescribed an antidepressant not from a psychiatrist but from your primary care physician, and will this make you anxious about trusting all healthcare authorities?

Trust is important in all of healthcare, but it is absolutely vital in helping someone with depression. In my three decades plus as a practicing clinical psychologist, my experience is that depression is a reaction to loss and other pains, and a loss of trust is one of those pains. Thus, discovering that one has misplaced trust in a doctor can make one’s depression worse.”



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  1. I began taking SSRI antidepressants in 1996 at age 23. Prozac made me so suicidal that I attempted suicide for the first time a couple of months later. I was told repeatedly that the medication would correct my “chemical imbalance” by every psychiatrist, nurse practitioner, and therapist that I saw.

    Over and over again, they raised the doses to max levels, changed the medication to something new, or added another pill until around 2004 – 2005 when I was on 5 different medications at the same time. None ever helped much if at all. I simply could tell no difference no matter what medications I was on, with the exception of negative side effects.

    I lost TennCare in 2005 after I moved to a new city in TN to take a fulltime job. I had no healthcare insurance with the job, so I found myself in withdrawal hell when I ran out of everything. I ended up at the ER, suicidal and experiencing weird brain zaps. That resulted in an involuntary 72 hour hold; and about a month later, I lost that job, lost all of my belongings, and became homeless for the 5th time. With the exception of a part time job that I somehow managed to keep for 5 months in 2018, I haven’t been employable since, despite everyone pressuring me to “just find a job” and keep it.

    Until 2005, I bought into the whole chemical imbalance theory. After experiencing the horrible withdrawals, though, and realizing I felt no different on or off meds, I suspected something was amiss. I’m not sure when I first heard that the chemical imbalance theory had been disproved; but I’m guessing it was around 2008, when I finally gave up on medication altogether. That’s also around the time I began reading scientific papers for fun, and I do remember reading a few stating as much.

    By that point I no longer trusted psychiatry and left treatment. I’m no better off for any of it. I’m still a suicidally depressed individual, but now I have a whole lot of trauma to go along with it. I felt used, like a Guinea pig or one of the rats of NIMH. I felt disrespected and manipulated. My trust in mental health treatment was shattered, and it took me several years before I reached out for help again out of sheer desperation. Even then and for the last 10 years, I refused medication because I no longer trusted it or psychiatry.

    I can’t even take medication for physical health problems because I developed such a phobia of medicine and doctors, for which I blame psychiatry. I can’t even make myself get a complete physical or go to a doctor for basic first aid or illness.

    I lost my only source of income, SSDI, and Medicare in January 2013 as a result of leaving treatment. The treatment facility I’ve used these last 10 years has been a nightmare, repeatedly discharging me from treatment again and again, often when I was at my worst. It’s a rural area, not much to choose from. I’m currently homeless yet again, and I see no hope for a future.

    I apologize for the lengthy comment, but that was still a very abbreviated version of “my” experience with the mental health industry. The consequence of lying to clients in the way that they did throughout the ’90’s and beyond affects every aspect of their lives. It’s wrong. Corporations need to grow a conscience and take responsibility for the damage they’ve caused.

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  2. I don’t understand why so many people use the word “medications” when it is just drugs. Please write the word “psychiatric “, if you are going to write medications. “Psychiatric medications” to be specific because they are not medicines in the traditional penicillin and insulin kind of medicine.

    Drugs vs medicine
    Whats the correct dose? arbitrary with no measurement tools.
    When does it end? never, with no measurement tools.

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