by Dorothy Rowe
How often have you heard that a chemical imbalance is the cause of
depression? A hundred times? If you're as old as me you've heard it a
thousand times, and said by psychiatrists in tones of absolute
certainty. It's why the SSRI drugs were made specifically to put
serotonin in the brain and thus right the imbalance.
However, without telling the rest of us, psychiatrists have changed
A few weeks ago I was browsing the Royal College of Psychiatrists'
website. The pamphlet on bipolar disorder had been removed and I wanted
to see if a new one was in place. It was, and some curious changes had
been made. I then looked at their pamphlet on depression. It's a very
long pamphlet, written in a chatty way. Under the heading, 'Why does it
[depression] happen?' is a statement which says that sometimes there's
an obvious reason for becoming depressed and sometimes there isn't. It's
different for different people. Then there's a list of the things that
can lead you to be depressed. These are: things that happen in our
lives; circumstances; physical illness; personality ('This may be
because of our genes, because of experiences in our early life, or
both.'); alcohol; gender ('Women seem to get depressed more than men do.
It may be that men are less likely to admit their feelings and bottle
them up, or express them in aggression or through drinking heavily.
Women are likely to have the double stress of having to work and look
after children.'); and genes (depression can run in families). And
that's it. No chemical imbalance.
There's never been any evidence for a chemical imbalance in the brain
when a person is depressed. That idea was abandoned by scientists thirty
years ago. However, a lack of scientific evidence has never stopped some
psychiatrists from claiming black was white. It took the Royal College
many years to accept that the minor tranquillisers are addictive; that
the monoamine oxidise inhibitors are addictive; and, more recently, that
the SSRI drugs can provoke suicidal and hostile thoughts. But it does
seem, at last, that the Royal College has accepted that depression has
far more to do with how we see ourselves and how we deal with our lives
than it does with the physical make-up of our bodies.