The debate about the nature of conditions such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD has been going on for decades. As of today, most experts consider them as mental disorders that are to be treated with medication as well as psychological consultations. A team from Washington State University has proposed an alternative view, claiming that these conditions are rather responses to adversity rather than mental disorders.
This isn’t said to denote these conditions, however, nor to minimize their devastating effects on our psyche. Rather, the researchers insist that reclassifying these conditions is important for helping medical professionals find better treatments.
The researchers’ approach is based more on the nature of human evolution and uses modern data on these conditions as well. Published in the Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, the study points out that the rates of depressive disorder (~4,4%) and anxiety disorder (~4%) haven’t changed much in the 20 years between 1990 and 2010 despite the use of antidepressants increasing several hundred percents in some countries (352% in 12 years in Australia, for example).
Statistics like these have prompted the Washington State University researchers to suggest that anxiety, depression, and PTSD are more akin to physical responses to adversity – different ways in which the mind struggles with certain specific and usually external circumstances.
Therefore, the study suggests, treating just the “psychic pain” caused by these conditions with medications doesn’t really solve the underlying issues that continue to cause them.
What are the most common causes of these conditions?
According to the researchers, the causes of PTSD, anxiety, and depression can vary a lot from a threat of exposure to violence to simple sub-optimal socioeconomic conditions. The scientists use the overarching term “sociocultural phenomena” to encompass all possible external causes of these conditions.
Therefore, the more adequate way of addressing these conditions is by trying to fix the social dysfunctions in the patients’ surroundings rather than medicate their brains. “Treating the causes rather than the symptoms,” simply put.
Naturally, this is much easier said than done. Many people’s causes of anxiety, depression, and PTSD are major socioeconomic norms that can’t be changed with ease. Nevertheless, the researchers maintain that focusing more on that – both individually and as a matter of public policy – is a much better approach rather than using antidepressants that aren’t much better than placebos.
This isn’t to say that many other conditions shouldn’t be classified as mental disorders
The team does acknowledge that many other conditions such as schizophrenia are likely genetic and often inherited while others, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are connected to aging and are mainly due to the biochemical makeup of the brain.
Another group of conditions, however, such as ADHD, seem much more like a mismatch between our contemporary environment and our ancestral environment in which we have evolved as a species.
The Washington State anthropologists point out that there’s pretty much nothing in our evolutionary history that suggests it’s normal for children to spend half a day, every day sitting calmly at desks and watching a teacher scribbling numbers on a blackboard.
So, classifying children who feel uneasy in such circumstances as “having an ADHD mental disorder” seems very disconnected from our species’ evolutionary reality.
Instead of treating ADHD as a disorder, we should look at it as a mismatch of the human environment. Perhaps then, a much better solution might be discovered or we might have to consider a gradual educational reform.