Hype and hot air – the myth of the ‘chemical imbalance’

The myth of the ‘chemical imbalance’ was discussed in a recent exchange with experts from the Royal College of Psychiatrists and it was quite revealing. The question that was put to the experts concerned the use of antidepressants to resolve the mythical ‘chemical imbalance’ in the brain.

For years, people have been prescribed antidepressants with the belief that the psychiatric drugs would do something to the so-called ‘imbalance.’ Psychiatrists, pharmaceutical companies and their spin doctors have used the idea to convince people there might be something useful in taking them, while at the same time, benefiting from increased antidepressant sales to the tune of £5 billion in England alone since 2000. If nothing else, it’s an impressive marketing strategy.

The question put to the experts in the exchange was as follows, “What is the evidence that depression is due to a ‘chemical imbalance’ in the brain?” As it’s such a lucrative psychiatric concept, it was surprising yet welcome and even uplifting to read psychiatrist Carmine Pariante’s reply on behalf of the Royal College. He said, “The old idea that ADs (antidepressants) correct a chemical imbalance in the brain is an over-simplification and we do not support this view.”

After decades of hype and hot air, some of which still appears in publications on the Royal College website, the idea that antidepressants correct a ‘chemical imbalance’ is no longer supported. Has this stance been made widely known to those prescribing the drugs as well as those taking them? I doubt it.

This leads to another question; if the drugs are not correcting an imbalance, what then have antidepressants been doing to people who have taken them all this time? The Royal College was upset with the recent Panorama show as it didn’t like the way the media was positioning antidepressants as the cause of murder. However, when there’s an incident of murder or murder-suicide reported in the media today, it’s commonplace to ask the question, “what psychiatric drug the person was taking at the time?”

The Daily Telegraph reported that antidepressants were linked to 28 reports of murder and 32 cases of murderous thoughts, in cases referred to the UK medicines regulator over the past 30 years. Also consider the incidents of senseless violence in the United States where some 90% of school shootings over more than a decade have been linked to antidepressants.

Even if someone was convinced a ‘chemical imbalance’ in the brain did exist, it would follow that there would be a test to measure when the imbalance was corrected to form a ‘chemical balance.’ Sorry to disappoint anyone, but there isn’t a test to check for a balance or an imbalance. Therein lies the myth of the chemical imbalance.

At the end of the day, the important factor is to be fully informed about antidepressants and by doing so, people can make up their own minds rather than accepting psychiatric beliefs.

So, will the Royal College of Psychiatrists be informing its members and general practitioners of this stance regarding the myth of the ‘chemical imbalance’?

Further reading: Chemical Imbalance

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