Cognition & Reality

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Mental Illness: A Holiday Message

During the upcoming holidays, many will renew their awareness of the role families play in “mental illness.” To a parent already blaming himself or herself for the troubles of a decompensating child, that he or she played a role in producing those troubles is a far less acceptable explanation for an ongoing crisis, however, than that it was something in the DNA (“in the blood,” as people used to say). A “genetic” explanation for psychiatric illness comforts parents, gratifies the egos of doctors, and fills the coffers of giant companies. What could be better than that?

The propaganda campaign has been so successful that the burden of proof has shifted from where it would be in an actual scientific debate, on those claiming a genetic component in psychiatric illness, onto those who say there is no connection or very little connection, upending the logic of hypothesis testing that is at the heart of scientific inquiry. That it’s been a very successful campaign is obvious when you consider the slender evidence upon which the claim is based, and that everyone, just about, takes it for granted that bad genes cause depression and other psychiatric disorders. Another piece of evidence for the success of the campaign is that anyone, like me, who questions the assumption is immediately marginalized as a shrill advocate for the mean-spirited notion that individuals are responsible for themselves and for their fellow humans.

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