A Call for the Science-Based Approach to
Mental Illness

NoStigmaOften heard in the months following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings was that, in order to effectively address mental health issues in this country, the stigma around these illnesses must be eliminated. But what does that mean exactly?

To many, it means taking a mental health disorder’s classification as an “illness” literally. Just as years have been spent studying and administering the best treatments for illnesses like pneumonia and HIV, mental health disorders require the same level of scientific devotion, and individuals require access to subsequent treatments.

Today President Obama and Vice President Biden held a national conference on mental health at the White House. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry tweeted from the conference, saying that the President posed this: if it would be unacceptable for only 50% of those with cancer to be treated, why is that standard of care acceptable when it comes to mental health?

Part of the reason that many suffering from mental health disorders don’t get access to the help that they need is because the field is messy and suffers from an even messier history. For some perspective, this year — prior to the release of the most recent version of the diagnostic bible of the field called the DMS-5 — the director of the National Institute of Mental Health wrote an op-ed questioning the DMS-5’s validity.

NIMH Director Thomas Insel, MD, agued the DMS-5 promulgates the idea that diagnosis should be based on the nature of symptoms instead of objective laboratory measure. David Kupfer, MD, chair of the DSM-5 task force and a professor of psychiatry and of neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh, confirmed that the manual lacks an emphasis on biological data.

“The problem that we’ve had in dealing with the data that we’ve had over the five to 10 years since we began the revision process of DSM-5 is a failure of our neuroscience and biology to give us the level of diagnostic criteria, a level of sensitivity and specificity that we would be able to introduce into the diagnostic manual,” Kupfer told the New York Times.

The Times described Insel as one of a growing number of scientists who believes the field needs a paradigm shift when it comes to the way that health care professionals look at these illnesses. At the same time, last month it seemed that growing numbers of the general public started to join his ranks.

During the month of May, the The Brain & Behavior Research Foundation held a social media campaign called “Know Science. No Stigma.” The foundation raises funds for scientific research for depression, anxiety, autism, ADHD, schizophrenia, and other mental health disorders. Its mental health anti-stigma initiative encouraged Facebook and Twitter users to change their background and profile pictures to the campaign slogan.

Throughout the entire month it also used its social media channels to spread science-based research on mental illnesses. For example, one message said, “Giving real-time feedback from brain scans to patients with OCD helped them learn to modulate activity in the part of the brain where anxiety is regulated. Positive changes in brain connectivity and reduced anxiety lasted several days,” according to research by Christopher Pittenger, MD, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University.

Also in an effort to reach out to the public online, the government just launched mentalhealth.gov, a site with disorder-specific information and resources.

Advances in biology, genetics and neuroscience have continually proved to the science community that the more it learns, the less it knows. It is known that an individual’s health is affected by all three of these sciences. But in many ways it remains to be learned what these fields can teach us about mental health.

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