The Medicalization of Emotional Life

Jeremy Safran in “Psychiatry in the News“:

It is one thing to hypothesize that psychological and emotional problems are associated with changes at the biological level (e.g., specific patterns of brain activity or levels of neurotransmitters) or that symptom remission is associated with biological changes. It’s another to assume that the underlying causes of mental health problems are always biological in nature and that meaningful improvements in treatment will only take place when we can directly target the relevant brain circuitry. While it may be the case that biological factors play a more significant causal role in some mental health problems (e.g., schizophrenia) than others, the assumption that the major causal factor for mental health problems is always biological is a form of simplistic reductionism.

I want to be perfectly clear that I do not question the potential value of brain science research. What I do question is the single-minded emphasis on brain science research to the virtual exclusion of all other forms of mental health research. The new NIMH paradigm for research means that the amount of funding available for the development and refinement of treatments such as psychotherapy that are not targeted directly at the brain circuitry (although they do influence it indirectly), is likely to continue to shrink. It is important to recognize that funding priorities shape the programs of research pursued by scientists, and thus the type of research findings that are published in professional journals and disseminated to the public. This in turn shapes the curricula in psychiatry and clinical psychology training programs, which shapes the way in which mental health professionals understand and treat mental health problems. It also influences healthcare policy decisions and the type of coverage provided by third party insurers.

In concrete terms, the explicit NIMH policy shift is likely to mean that despite the large and growing body of evidence demonstrating that a variety of forms of psychotherapy (e.g., cognitive therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy, psychoanalytic therapy, emotion focused therapy) are effective treatments for a range of problems, we are likely to continue to see a decreasing availability of the already diminishing resources that can provide high quality psychotherapy for those who can potentially benefit from it.

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