Depression is Not a Brain Defect

I’ve come across an article by psychologist Bruce Levine, PhD, How the “Brain Defect” Theory of Depression Stigmatizes Depression Sufferers.

Dr. Levine convincingly debunks the brain defect theory, and also the notion that the illness theory destigmatizes depression.

Here are some quotes:

 “Americans have been increasingly socialized to be terrified of the overwhelming pain that can fuel depression, and they have been taught to distrust their own and other’s ability to overcome it. This terror, like any terror, inhibits critical thinking. Without critical thinking, it is difficult to accurately assess the legitimacy of authorities. And Americans have become easy prey for mental health authorities’ proclamation that depression is a result of a brain defect.”

 “The reality is there is no scientific proof that depression is caused by either a character defect or a brain defect.”

 “Thus, by the 1990s, it was known in the scientific community that the serotonin (and other neurotransmitters) imbalance theory of depression had been disproved. Yet, as detailed in Society in 2008 (“The Media and the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Depression”), the general public continued to hear—through antidepressant commercials, the mainstream media, and some mental health authorities—about the neurotransmitter imbalance theory of depression. Even today, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill states on its Web site, “Scientists believe that if there is a chemical imbalance in these neurotransmitters [norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine], then clinical states of depression result.”

The article is cogent and articulate, and I strongly recommend it.

  • Sweet63

    I never knew psychiatrists actually admitted that the brain defect theory was supposed to reduce the stigma, rather than simply being scientific Truth. It’s amusing that supposedly being crazy or even just neurotic was somehow more positive.

  • Phil_Hickey


    I guess the essential point here is that people who seem different get stigmatized. If someone is seen as “a bit crazy,” this can be shrugged off with – “well, aren’t we all a bit crazy” or “Hey, we’re all different.” This gets harder to do with a brain defect.

    Best wishes.

  • Sweet63

    it probably worked for my mother’s generation, but now it;s just another type of FAIL.

  • Phil_Hickey


    Yes, and that’s exactly what these individuals don’t need. A profound sense of failure is the essential foundation of the condition known as schizophrenia.

  • Cledwyn Bastardo

    I think society is maintaining some sort of conspiracy of silence about how miserable we all are, in the same way that society, as has been pointed out before, and especially male society because of ridiculous normative gender expectations, denies collectively its fear. In societies that view misery as a mental illness, people are afraid of being tarred with the mad brush, with all that that entails, internalizing the notion that happiness is normal and misery is “mentally diseased” so deeply, that they even deny it to themselves.

    The notion that the theory of “depression as a brain defect” destigmatizes misery in its more extreme manifestations is just another example of psychiatry dealing in inversions of reality of Orwellian proportions.

    The examples of this are too numerous to enumerate comprehensively, but here are some:-

    -the term “mental asylum” is typical Orwellian doublespeak. Organized psychiatry, in the commission of its crimes, makes language an accessory. A mental asylum should have properly been a place where a person could find sanctuary from the persecutions of their fellow species and the predatory gaze of others; from the cannibalistic, metaphorically speaking, appetites of others; a place where those people who are (because of their “oddness” and “otherness”) marked out as legitimate quarry for the multitudes, can take refuge from all those aspects of society that make it so insufferable for so many people, as well as those who embody them. Instead, in an inversion of its meaning and perversion of its function, within the four walls of the mental asylum those aspects of society people were trying to escape were to be found in even greater concentrations. Much like the “mental hospital” today, they function as devices employed to ensnare the desperate.

    -“mental hospital” is another example.

    -another example of the service language is put to in the inversion of things as they are is in the stigmatization of the enemy. Critics are accused of being “denialists”, as if people like myself were denying something observable, mensurable, concrete, when truth is that within the mental health community, denial of the harms psychiatry has authored and its true function in society, has been institutionalized, so that any criticism that does not take as its starting point an acknowledgment of the supposed preponderance of good intentions in the profession, and does not implictly postulate that institutional psychiatry is some sort of humanitarian, moral enterprise, is dismissed as a “conspiracy theorist”, typical of a profession determined not to examine the psychological, cultural and institutional conditions within which evil metastasizes and which cannot be understood in conspiratorial terms.

    -critics of the validity of psychiatric theory are accused of being flat-earthers. Yet it is they who arrogantly assert the existence of abstract illnesses without proof.

    -the accusation of “dangerousness” is regularly levelled at critics and their views, as it is at us “schizophrenics”, a patent inversion of reality to anyone who isn’t observing the reality of this conflict through a glass darkly.

    -the notion that contemporary psychiatric theories are destigmatizing human distress does not comport well with the reality of the isolation of so many mental patients in a society where the majority of people use psychiatry’s idiom of degradation and abuse as weapons, and continue to see the “madman” as fundamentally alien.

    -critics are accused of extremism, yet the religious violence and intolerance of difference this connotes is clearly more applicable to the secular-religion of psychiatry.

    -the profession has usurped scientific authority for its own beliefs and practices. Yet substantively it is not a science. Science is largely about the demystification of nature, its founding animated perhaps by a spirit of scepticism, of love of progress, and a growing disillusionment with religious certainties and superstitions. Psychiatry then, according to this definition, is its antipodal opposite. Psychiatry mystfies the world through the misapplication of an idiom, belonging properly to one category of things, to another. Psychiatry values misplaced certainty over scepticism, uniformity of opinion over sceptical enquiry, and is fundamentally inertial.

  • Cledwyn Bastardo

    No, I disagree. Personally, whilst I do think that a sense of failure is undoubtedly sometimes at the root of differing kinds of mental distress, I do not think it is the essential precondition of it. Personally, I think perhaps in most cases (although any monocausal theory of “schizophrenia” is doomed to failure because it is perhaps little more than an umbrella term for a variety of different experiences), the matrix of what is described as the “symptomatology”, the stigmata, of “schizophrenia”, is isolation, though I would advise against the wholesale application of any theory in this regards, given the diversity of experience the label refers to.

    Nevertheless, anyone au fait with the studies done on people kept in solitary confinement will understand just how important a firm anchoring in a network of social relations can be for a person, although we all must try to strike a balance between independence and dependence on others.

    Before I go any further, I think there was an episode of “the Twilight Zone” that dealt with this, perhaps the first ever one.

    People who have been in solitary confinement report going out of their mind. Now of course, this represents an extremity of experience few will have lived through, but the research nevertheless shows just how much isolation can breed paranoia, terror and rage.

    That’s my experience of “schizophrenia”. I felt like I was withdrawing too deeply into myself. I had people in my life, but I was in conflict with the lot of them, and conflict can be another important factor in some of the “symptomatology” of this elusive disease.

  • Cledwyn Bastardo

    “stigmata” shouldn’t be there.

  • Cledwyn Bastardo

    That should be “conspiracy theory” not “conspiracy theorist”.

  • Cledwyn Bastardo

    that is, “the precondition of schizophrenia.”