Monday, 22 February 2016

Is Mental Illness All in the Brain?

In an open letter to Stephen Fry, who in a recent BBC programme argued that bipolar disorder is a brain condition to which some people are vulnerable because of genetic predisposition, Richard Bentall argues that mental illness is not all in the brain. He talks about some "unhappy experiences" he had in a public school for boys, the same Stephen Fry went to, and speculates that their interest in mental health may be an effect of those experiences.

MRI of the brain overlaid with "pain".

Here is an extract of the letter:
[R]ecent epidemiological studies have pointed to a wide range of social and environmental factors that increase the risk of mental ill health [...]. These include poverty in childhood and early exposure to urban environments; migration and belonging to an ethnic minority (probably not problems encountered by most public school boys in the early 1970s) but also early separation from parents; childhood sexual, physical and emotional abuse; and bullying in schools. In each of these cases, the evidence of link with future psychiatric disorder is very strong indeed – at least as strong as the genetic evidence. Moreover, there is now good evidence that these kinds of experiences can affect brain structure, explaining the abnormal neuroimaging findings that have been reported for psychiatric patients, and that they lead to stress sensitivity and extreme mood fluctuations in adulthood.
In this excellent letter, one of the themes of our research group is illustrated very clearly: almost everything that happens in our lives has an impact on our health, and traumatic events early in life affect our brains. So, when we say that instances of mental distress are caused by brain disorders, we are not telling the whole story.

The view Richard Bentall defends in the letter, and in his research, is also discussed in a recent podcast, episode 5 of The Philosofa, where Richard and I are asked: Is there a clear line between madness and sanity?

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