Just What We Need: More Stigmatizing Research

Sue Bergeson Health Guide
  • As you might know, in England one researcher came to the conclusion that, for people with mild or moderate depression, sugar pills (called a placebo or fake pill) worked as well as traditional antidepressants (SSRIs). For one report on this research, click here.


    I'm sure John McManamy has covered this issue in his blog much more effectively, and with more scientific vigor, than I ever could. But my question is this: why are some researchers, many members of the public and the media are eager to "expose" mental health medications as "fraudulent"?


    I doubt a day goes by somewhere where there isn't a story about how ridiculous the whole idea of mental illness is. I've read countless stories by people warning us that we're medicating the "worried well" and that we're creating illnesses to profit the big pharma companies. I've even been quoted in scornful diatribes by people who simply refuse to believe that the statistics I quoted from the World Health Organization could possibly be true.

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    I wish those people could live in our shoes for an hour, a day, a year.... I wish they could know the real pain of these illnesses. That may be as close to a curse as I ever get, because these illnesses are not for sissies.


    Of course, it all comes down to stigma. I've thought a lot about stigma over the eight years I have worked at DBSA. It seems so counterintuitive that people would believe in certain medical illnesses that can't be seen with the naked eye—many cancers, most diseases of the organs, and other neurological disorders are accepted as real—but they will not believe that mental illnesses do, in fact, also exist. Even though medical scans just like those done for other "acceptable" and "accepted" illnesses show differences in the brain chemistry of a person with mental illness, somehow our illnesses are still not legitimate.


    But if, like me, you have studied a lot of philosophy and religion, this attitude begins to make sense, in an oddly distorted way, within the context of hundreds of years of successfully separating the mind from the body. When our body doesn't work, we know that is physical. But if our mind doesn't work ... well, that ends up being a spiritual problem.


    I blame St. Augustine and the whole idea of separation of mind and body and the "mortification of the flesh." That really did a number on our collective ability to see ourselves as whole people with an integrated mind, body and spirit. Whether or not you come from that faith tradition, the ideas permeated Western culture so strongly that it defined us as a society for centuries. And I think it still does.


    This is why I think that research that finds that "there is no difference between placebo and medication" would be very popular in Western cultures. Many people will love to hear it, and many more would absolutely believe it with all their hearts. So, if we don't use medication and this is not a real disease, what do we do for this devastating illness? If we follow St. Augustine's philosophy, it seems like the solution to our pain is to "suck it up and work it out." Sound familiar? That just might translate into "pick yourself up by your bootstraps."


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    Honestly, haven't we gotten farther than that after all these years of research? What are your thoughts?

Published On: March 27, 2008