Media’s Chemical Imbalance Theory of Depression

Yet more on the SSRI theory of depression. Here’s the full headline of a thought provoking press release from Florida State University: Media Perpetuates Unsubstantiated Chemical Imbalance Theory of Depression. The piece focuses on a few often overlooked facts: (1) That depression is caused by a “chemical imbalance” remains unproven and (2) That SSRIs are increasingly being found to be about as effective as placebo. Also (3) the media is largely misinformed about these facts. Here is an excerpt, the italics are mine:

Jeffrey Lacasse, an FSU doctoral candidate and visiting lecturer in the College of Social Work, and Jonathan Leo, a neuroanatomy professor at Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee, found that reporters who included statements in news articles about depression being caused by a chemical imbalance, or a lack of serotonin in the brain, were unable to provide scientific evidence to support those statements.

Lacasse and Leo spent about a year in late 2006 and 2007 monitoring the daily news for articles that included statements about chemical imbalances and contacting the authors to request evidence that supported their statements. Several reporters, psychiatrists and a drug company responded to the researchers’ requests, but Lacasse and Leo said they did not provide documentation that supported the chemical imbalance theory. Their findings were published in the journal Society.

“The media’s presentation of the theory as fact is troublesome because it misrepresents the current status of the theory,” Lacasse said. “For instance, there are few scientists who will rise to its defense, and some prominent psychiatrists publicly acknowledge that the serotonin hypothesis is more metaphor than fact. As the current study documents, when asked for evidence, reporters were unable to cite peer-reviewed primary articles in support of the theory.”

Moreover, the researchers said, several of the responses received from reporters seem to suggest a fundamental misunderstanding of the theory’s scientific status. The “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” which almost all psychiatrists use to diagnose and treat their patients, clearly states that the cause of depression and anxiety is unknown, according to Lacasse and Leo.

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Kalea Chapman, Psy.D.

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