Society’s view of mental illness as exclusively biological prevents progress

Mental illness is often thought of as a biological disorder. This idea is reflected in the range of medication aimed at curing it by elevating or suppressing certain neurotransmitters. However, users remain uncured, and the mental health crisis continues to grow. 

If mental illness is purely biological, then why doesn’t medication cure the affliction?

Most mental illnesses, such as depression and bipolar disorder, all seem to have a common denominator: stress. In addition to certain genetic dispositions, mental illness is caused by changes within the brain during periods of high stress.

Compared to war-torn or unstable states, there seem to be fewer threats to one’s safety in so-called “first world countries.” Despite the physical security of such citizens, mental illness seems to be egalitarian, affecting those with the highest income as well as those who are financially insecure. 

One likely factor behind the stress is anxiety.

Irish psychiatrist Peadar O’Grady defines anxiety as a threat that is not immediate or unclear, but is fear by another name. According to O’Grady, the threat behind anxiety is the fear of losing one’s autonomy over their personal destiny. The fear behind mental illnesses is fearing the  inability to self-actualize and an inability to express human drives, programmed deep within our psyches. 

It is difficult to imagine that the feeling of lack of agency is caused by some genetic malfunction, and anxiety, as well as the diseases which it causes, is too widespread to be attributed to individual attributes. The only plausible culprit is the relationships people hold in and with society. The main causes for mental illnesses are not exclusively biological, but also social, and our society’s oversight of the roots of such afflictions contribute to the ongoing mental health crisis.

The social vectors of mental illness are largely ignored within the discussion of mental illness as well as the response to it. Genomic theories of mental health can provide insights into a minority of cases of mental illness — and non-biological causes, i.e. trauma, are understood to be the causes of disorders such as PTSD. However, they are ill-equipped to explain psychiatric afflictions such as anxiety and depression. 

Mental illness itself is a capitalist construct, as is its perceived binary opposite, “wellness.” The “well” person is well enough to go to work and function in society — that is, contribute to the economy through “acceptable” levels of consumption. The “ill” person is the one who cannot, and therefore must be cured.

The false dichotomy of “well” and “ill” is incredibly destructive when wellness is conceived as the status quo; it invents illness as a temporary. On top of the shortcomings of palliatives, such as Zoloft and beta-blockers, which aim to provide short term “wellness” through elevating or suppressing certain neurotransmitters, this perception of illness is largely responsible for the stigma deterring people from seeking care. 

The medicalization of mental illness could be argued as a net positive, due to an international movement of academics and public health workers who are working to destigmatize and raise awareness about the severity of the mental health crisis. However, the movement fails to ask the necessary questions: Why are people physically and emotionally isolated? Why do we feel such lack of control over our own destinies? Which structures in society give rise to these conditions? 

As modern life’s social problems are not recognized, the movement addresses mental health with palliative drugs, designed to temporarily ensure mental stability, rather than work towards a permanent cure.