Ever since the revised edition of DSM III was published in 1987, the psychiatric establishment in the United States -- i.e., the American Psychiatric Association, NAMI, the NIMH, and the pharmaceutical industry -- has been telling the American public that it is now known that major mental disorders are "biological diseases," just like "diabetes." The public has been informed that major mental disorders are caused by "chemical imbalances" in the brain, and that psychiatric medications are like "insulin for diabetes."
As this storytelling has occurred, the psychiatric establishment has run anti-stigma campaigns, arguing that if the public understood that mental disorders were brain diseases, then societal "stigma" toward the "mentally ill" would lessen.
A study published in the November issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, which was led by Bernice Pescosolido at Indiana University, provides an interesting look at how this storytelling effort has worked out.
As I wrote in Anatomy of an Epidemic (and as others have written, too), the chemical imbalance hypothesis of mental disorders, which arose in the 1960s, basically fell apart in the 1970s and early 1980s. Researchers studying whether people with schizophrenia had overactive "dopamine" systems failed to find that this was so. Similarly, researchers failed to find that people with depression had low levels of serotonin in the brain. These chemical-imbalance investigations continued to sputter along throughout the 1980s and the 1990s, but the bottom-line never changed. As Kenneth Kendler, coeditor in chief of Psychological Medicine, explained in 2005: "We have hunted for big simple neurochemical explanations for psychiatric disorders and have not found them."
However, that scientific finding -- that the chemical-imbalance hypothesis of mental disorders failed to pan out -- was never told to the public. Instead, Prozac came to market in 1988 and the public heard all about "chemical imbalances," and as the study in the November issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry reveals, this PR campaign by the psychiatric establishment was quite successful. In 2006, 87% of the adults surveyed believed that schizophrenia was due to a chemical imbalance, up from 78% in 1996. Eighty percent of those surveyed said that depression was due to a chemical imbalance, up from 67% in 1996.