We Have Happy Pills, Anxiety Drugs, and Therapists Galore: So Why Are We More Stressed and Depressed Than Ever?
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“Creating a new theory is not like destroying an old barn and erecting a skyscraper in its place. It is rather like climbing a mountain, gaining new and wider views, discovering unexpected connections between our starting point and its rich environment. But the point from which we started still exists and can be seen, although it appears smaller and forms a tiny part of our broad view gained by the mastery of the obstacles on our adventurous way up.”
The new integrative model of mental health does not ignore brain biochemistry. It takes into account correlations between imbalances in neurotransmitters and mood disorders. Nor does it reject psychopharmacology. Integrative treatment plans for depression, particularly for severe depression, may well include medication, but my colleagues and I prefer to try other methods first and to use antidepressant drugs for short-term management of crises rather than rely on them as long-term solutions. One of the invited speakers, a noted expert on psychopharmacology, gave an optimistic presentation on psychiatric drugs of the future, drugs that will have more specific, better-targeted actions. People listened to his lecture with interest but showed much greater enthusiasm for talks on the critical importance of dietary omega-3 fatty acids to optimum emotional health and the latest neuroscientific evidence for the benefits of meditation, among others.
To say that the psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals in attendance appreciated this larger perspective fails to convey their excitement. One told me that she had been waiting years for such a conference. Another said he would take the information he received and use it to change standards of practice in a large group of mental health care facilities in his state. Many expressed interest in seeking formal training in integrative mental health, training that I and my colleagues at the University of Arizona hope to provide.
Presentations that particularly interested me concerned neuroplasticity, the potential of the brain and nervous system to change and adapt. The speakers were neuroscientists influenced by Buddhist psychology and the teachings of the Dalai Lama. Using such new techniques as PET scans and functional MRIs, which make it possible to visualize living brains, they have been able to show that individuals trained in meditation have different brain activity from those without such training, and they respond differently to situations that would cause most of us to lose our emotional equilibrium. The broader implication of this research is that changes in the mind can cause changes in both the function and structure of the brain, a fact that cannot be explained by the biomedical model and that suggests many more options for taking charge of our emotional well-being.
In retrospect, seeing human beings as nothing more than the sum of biochemical interactions was probably a necessary stage of medical evolution. Medical systems of the past lacked the technology to study the biological underpinnings of human health with rigor and precision. Now we have that technology, and we’ve used it well to gain invaluable insights about our physical bodies. But it is impossible to restore or promote human health unless we begin with a complete definition of a human being. An incomplete definition will always result in incomplete diagnoses and less-than-optimal treatments.
So now is the time to ascend the mountain and see the biomedical model as one part of our broadening view. Our health or lack of it is the result of biochemical interactions and genetics, dietary choices, exercise patterns, sleep habits, hopes, fears, families, friends, jobs, hobbies, cultures, ecosystems, and more. Chemical imbalances in the brain may well correlate with depression, anxiety, and other emotional states but the arrows of cause and effect can point in both directions. Optimizing emotional wellness, by improving attention, changing destructive patterns of thinking, and finding contentment within, can also optimize brain chemistry, correcting any deficiencies in neurotransmitters.