Biology of Mental Illness?

I was listening to CBC radio’s Ideas in the Afternoon today when I heard science historian Anne Harrington state: “We don’t understand any major mental disorder biologically.” In her book Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness she “surveys a flawed medical field that has been unable to come to any clear consensus around the causes of — or cures for — mental illness”.  There are many psychiatrists and researchers who are working hard to find better treatments for mental illness but we still have a long way to go in our understanding of how to treat the whole person who has a mental illness rather than treating the disorder we believe them to have. When we do not fully understand the biological basis of mental illness (if one indeed exists), finding an effective treatment is a challenge.

In my personal experience, there are clients who report that their medication works well for them and who recognize the benefits of taking the medication. Many other clients, however, are not able to identify the benefits to their mental health and often relate challenges associated with the side effects of their medication. I think it’s very important to take the time to identify the ways in which medication (or any health intervention) supports us or not. When we are suffering, it’s sometimes hard to discern what is making a difference and we look for hope. Developing a greater awareness around the impact of all of our choices on our overall mental health is a major component of our healing. Challenging ourselves to be active agents in our own health care and to take active roles in all aspect of our treatment is part of this growing awareness. Human beings are diverse and mental health treatment must reflect our diversity and complexity.

For anyone who in interested in understanding the history and current state of psychiatry as well as its role in the research and treatment of mental illness, you may benefit from this book. It seems that we know less than you think about mental health issues but we have been challenged by Harrington to find more effective and comprehensive treatment options.

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