The Mental Illness Revolution Will Not Be Televised

We were peppered with claims that mental illness would disappear. Not any more.

Posted Jul 26, 2014

In 1977, a prominent neurologist could seriously write (he was discussing the endogenous opioid peptides, or endorphins): we "are talking about a veritable philosopher’s stone—a group of substances that hold out the promise of alleviating, or even eliminating, such age-old medical bugaboos as pain, drug addiction, and, among other mental illnesses, schizophrenia."  The title of my 1981 piece in American Psychologist in which I reviewed Richard Restak's claims was "Reductionism in the Psychology of the Eighties: Can Biochemistry Eliminate Addiction, Mental Illness, and Pain?" I said he was crazy.

Funny, you don't hear claims like that made about mental illness any more.  (Addiction is another story -- we're still hearing crazy claims that it will be cured.)  Instead, there is an epidemic of mental illness that began almost when Restak was writing those words.  We have seen a remarkable upsurge in virtually every major psychiatric disorder, including ADHD, depression, bi-polar disorder, even psychosis (antipsychotic drugs have become massive sellers). Some authors claim these surges are cosmetic, because we label mental illnesses more readily.  These authors are, in a word, crazy.

We did hear similar optimistic claims for a time in the 1990s, with the initiation of the Human Genome Project, completed at the beginning of this century.  Funny, we don't hear about the hot pursuit of genes that cause depression, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses today.  Have you noticed? That's because the genome project hope of identifying presumed genes for mental illnesses turned into fool's gold, as I said it would in Psychology Today in 1995.

We have now hit an all-time slough in our hopes for curing mental illness, lower even than before Restak wrote.  In the New York Times this month, Carl Zimmer and Benedict Carey noted on the advent of another huge donation to investigate mental illness, "Despite decades of costly research, experts have learned virtually nothing about the causes of psychiatric disorders and have developed no truly novel drug treatments in more than a quarter century." In fact, pharmaceutical companies, always leaders in where we are headed, have largely withdrawn from research in this area.

And why can't they find the damn source of all these mental illnesses and hold them at bay at least, if not cure them?  As I wrote (with Rich DeGrandpre) for Psychology Today in 1995, commenting on the field of behavioral genetics, which makes preposterous claims about the heritability of various traits, supposedly by statistically teasing out their genetic and enviornmental components:

The goal of determining what portion of behavior is genetic and environmental will always elude us. Our personalities and destinies don't evolve in this straightforward manner. Behavioral genetics actually shows us how the statistical plumbing of the human spirit has reached its limits. Claims that our genes cause our problems, our misbehavior, even our personalities are more a mirror of our culture's attitudes than a window for human understanding and change.

Stanton Peele has been empowering people around addiction since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has developed the on-line Life Process Program. His new book (written with Ilse Thompson) is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict with The PERFECT Program.  You can follow Stanton on Twitter and Facebook.  His website is