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Depression: The myth of "Chemical Imbalance"
By: Beth McHugh 2006
Just about everyone knows that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Right? Well, that's what popular mythology has led the man in the street to believe but there has never been any scientific proof for this "truism."
Finally researchers are speaking out about this "lie" that is spun to people in doctors' consulting rooms around the world. Johnathan Leo of Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Florida and Jeffrey Lacasse at Florida State University concur that advertising that claims that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance is misleading and should be banned.
Such advertisements send out the wrong message to patients, implying that they are passive victims of a brain gone awry, thus potentially leading to further depression. Such advertisements are not only untrue, but profoundly unethical.
While popular antidepressants, such the SSRI family of drugs including Prozac, are believed to block the uptake of the neurotransmitter serotonin, they have been shown in trials to be only marginally better than a placebo in treating depression.
And, as Johnathan Leo argues, "low serotonin levels are no more the cause of depression than low aspirin levels are the cause of headaches." You can read the Leo and Lacasee in the journal Public Library of Science Medicine, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.002092.
Leo goes on to state that this myth involving a chemical imbalance "has become a mainstay of popular culture. But there's very little support for this. We really don't know what chemicals are involved." Moreover, if such a chemical imbalance exists, it is not yet been determined even whether the imbalance is caused by the depression, or the depression causes the imbalance. Neither scenario has been scientifically established, but it is in the interest of multinational drug companies to propagate the myth.
More support for the chemical imbalance myth comes from the chairperson of the US Food and Drug Administration, Wayne Goodman. A "good man" indeed, he admits that the chemical imbalance story is a "useful metaphor" but claims that he would never tell his own patients that they were suffering from a chemical imbalance. "I can't get myself to say that," he stated.
The Irish Medicines Board, an Irish equivalent to the FDA, has banned the drug company GlaxoSmithKline from making claims that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance. Such information is no longer permitted to be printed in patient information brochures. Lea and Lacasse want the US FDA to follow suit.
This is a great breakthrough for depression sufferers around the world. The myth of chemical imbalance effectively renders the sufferer a victim of circumstances seemingly beyond their control. Systematic deletion of this myth from popular folklore will hopefully encourage sufferers of depression to look for more effective ways of dealing with and eliminating their depression.
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