Does seeing a shrink make you more suicidal?

Psychiatric cell

A new study suggests a link.

Yet it’s important to recognize that this Danish study has not emerged in isolation. For example, several studies, including one of 100 countries in 2004 and of 191 countries in 2013, have shown links between increasing funding to modern, western-style psychiatric mental health systems and increasing – not decreasing – suicide rates. The authors of those studies did not uncover clear explanations for their findings. And this new Danish study, for its part, has simply more sharply identified the precise junctures in the psychiatric care system that are most strongly linked to those increasing suicide rates.

So we are left to speculate: What might be causing these striking numbers?

There’s no doubt that being treated with powerful psychiatric drugs against your will can be traumatizing for many people. Antidepressants are known to increase suicidal feelings in youth, and other psychiatric medications are strongly linked to increased suicidal feelings shortly after people begin to take them or change dosage levels. Many psychiatric medications also can cause disruptive or debilitating side effects that can have significant negative effects on overall quality of life.

However, I suspect that the real problem is more fundamental: It’s the very idea that “mental illness” is a “brain disease.” This is what most psychiatric professionals believe, and it’s the main message they give to patients seeking their help. This widely propagated idea is a mental-emotional toxic blight upon us all that’s ultimately killing far more people than it’s helping.

It is an unproven theory that psychological difficulties are symptoms of underlying, chronic diseases of the brain that require medications as treatment. No biological markers have yet been found for any syndromes described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Yet thanks to intensive promotion of biological psychiatric theories by pharmaceutical companies, psychiatric professionals and media, most people who’ve never researched the topic themselves quite reasonably assume that it was solidly established years ago that schizophrenia is caused by wayward genes, depression is biochemically induced, and psychiatric medications balance measurable imbalances in brain neurotransmitters.

Those theories help drug company profit margins, and can provide comforting reassurance that many of society’s social ills and life’s most profound pains can be solved with a pill – but they are just theories. Conversely, one need only imagine oneself in the position of patient to see how upsetting, even terrifying or emotionally crushing such an image of “mental illness” can often be.

Picture yourself going through intense, perhaps frightening psychological struggles, and feeling extremely vulnerable, and finally turning to professionals for help. And the first doctor you encounter looks into your eyes and tells you with an aura of authoritative medical certainty that you have an incurable brain disease that will require lifelong medicating with extremely toxic, potentially debilitating drugs just to – hopefully – keep it in check.

If you were feeling despair about your situation and suicidal before that conversation, how about after it?

In this light, a recent study by Emory University and University of Texas psychologists is not surprising, and provides a measure of hope. The researchers conducted a random-controlled trial where they gave a brief science lesson to one group of youth about neuroplasticity, neural pathway development, and other ways that brains can physically, neurologically change in response to lifestyle and thought-pattern changes. The youth who received that lesson experienced significant reductions in depression symptoms.

Of course, substituting psychiatric medications for a fair wage and social programs presents problems, too.

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