Both the British Psychological Association and the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health have instigated a new method of researching mental illness. In the past, researchers were driven by biologically diagnostic categorization drawing a sharp distinction between those who are ill and those who are well. This approach failed to find any clear biological distinction between such illnesses as depression, schizophrenia and PTSD. The report by the British Psychological Association says there is no strict dividing line between psychosis and normal experience and defining people by a devastating label does not help them.
The NIMH is redesigning its research to examine neuroscientific structures (genes, cells, brain circuits) instead of just people’s behavior. An example is that researchers will no longer study people with anxiety, they will study fear circuitry. They are finding that illness is caused not only by brain deficits but also by abuse, deprivation and social inequality which alter the way the brain behaves. These suggestions are not new to eco-psychologists who cite environmental and cultural factors like poverty that contribute to mental illness.
As T. M. Luhrmann states in his January 18th New York Times Opinion piece, this rethinking will have worldwide consequences. As I have written before, The World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 4 people will have an episode of mental illness in their lifetime. “Mental and behavioral problems are the biggest single cause of disability on the planet.” Anti-psychotic medications, although sometimes helpful for severe symptoms, have not corrected the underlying biological abnormality of mental illness. We know that people are relieved from suffering when they are able to talk about their experiences in detail and have help making sense of what has happened to them. In other words, when they have help making meaning of their lives.