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A Commentary on the State of Mental Illness in Contemporary Society
By: Michael J. Gerson, PhD

Psychiatric MedicationPsychiatric Medication

Television advertising for psychiatric medications seems to have become as regular as commercials for automobiles, miracle cookware, or cosmetics. We are shown beautiful young men and women enjoying their friends and family, as we are also told that they have major depressions, bipolar moods, insomnia, and other potentially debilitating conditions.

Certainly these ads help de-stigmatize mental illness by showing that anyone can suffer from psychiatric problems. They present an optimistic view of successful treatment, a healthy productive life, and the assurance of better living through chemistry. Appropriately, they provide the legal disclaimers that these medications might cause some side effects and are potentially life threatening, but the likelihood is probably small and the image of a potential cure is obviously seductive.

The Motivation Behind Psychiatric Medication Ads

But also consider what else may be motivating these ads. These are not products that anyone can go out and buy like a car, a non-stick pan, or anti-wrinkle cream. These are products carefully controlled by the FDA to be dispensed only by licensed medical providers with an expertise in psychiatric disorders.

The target audience is presumably people who are suffering from serious mental health complications and/or their family members. If the intent of the advertisers were to help people seek psychiatric care, they would be promoting clinics, counseling centers, healthy lifestyle choices, and sources of information, as seen in public service announcements. Instead, they are targeting a vulnerable population with an implied promise of a cure that is not really supported by scientific research.

This is not to say that psychiatric medications are not helpful–they clearly are.  But they are not curative. The ads promote the theory that psychiatric disorders have been proven to be medical illnesses, which is not exactly true. The ads further assert that the cause of these conditions is specifically known and that these medications will correct the imbalance or deficiency the person is plagued with—also not exactly true!

In my 30+ years as a clinical psychologist I have seem many patients benefit from the use of medications, but I have never seen a patient cured by medication.  The combination of medication, psychotherapy, and lifestyle change has the best likelihood of helping people survive and thrive, so why isn’t that being made more explicit?

What Are Psychiatric Medication Ads Really Promoting?

I believe that the subtext to psychiatric medication ads is the promoting of helplessness and dependency in the public. That is, the ads promote the position of the patient as defective, damaged, or victimized.

There is no question that people are biological creatures constituted by a remarkably complex physiology and neuroanatomy. People are also creative, imaginative, and intelligent creatures who experience life with a remarkable capacity for change and adaptation. Everything we do or think or feel is accompanied by changes in our physiology, biochemistry, and neuroanatomy, but that does not mean that these processes determine us. Rather, biological processes are descriptions of how we function.

An increase in neurotransmitter levels may enhance a mood, whether by ingesting a medication, or by engaging in meditative or pleasurable activities. The causal relationship between biochemistry and mental states goes in both directions. By taking active roles in improving their lives, people can foster a healing that extends to the deepest levels of their physical existence.

To equate the effects of a medication with the definition of a mental experience would be like saying that a headache is caused by an aspirin deficiency. The aspirin can help, but its absence is not the reason for the headache any more than lowered serotonin level is the reason for depression.  For those people who may have a genetic, or otherwise inborn tendency toward a depressive way of being, medications may prove to be a godsend. These people will also greatly benefit from being helped to reconsider how they manage their lives, relate to others, and pursue their dreams.

Our Potential In the World

Mental illness may be an inevitable consequence of the human endeavor to redesign nature into a world that is safe, fair, and rewarding. We cannot eliminate the reality of nature’s forces or its occasional cruelty and tragedy. As humans, we face the disappointments of elusive ideals and the limitations of our ability to control our destiny. We must also consider the extent to which the world we have created for ourselves may be responsible for eliciting what we call mental illness. We are not the world, only participants in it who have a potential to think, choose, and survive with the help of others.

Mindfulness meditation practices and psychotherapy provide alternatives that can improve well-being, without diverting attention from the individual’s role in defining his or her life’s journey.

To find online courses for continuing professional development in psychoanalysis and other areas of psychology, see our list of courses on promoting diversity, modern systems theory, psychodynamics, mindfulness, and more.

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