The number of individuals who are dealing with mental illness has increased dramatically in recent years. There is significant debate about what is causing this epidemic. It could be that people are more at risk of mental illness than in the past. However, if mental illness is purely biological in nature, it is unclear what accounts for this rapid increase. This increase in people seeking help for mental health problems has led to significant growth of the mental healthcare industry. In addition, psychiatrists who prescribe drugs now have the leading role in providing treatments. Indeed, psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies are the two professions who benefit most from the mental illness epidemic.
As many as 32.4% of the population in the US suffers from a mental illness. That is more than 100 million people. The number of individuals who are unable to work due to a mental illness has increased more than 250 percent since 1987. Particularly worrying is the number of children who now have to deal with a mental health problem. It has become the leading cause of disability in childhood years. Among adults it is anxiety disorders that are the most prevalent. Substance abuse is the second most likely reason for mental health problems.
The definition used to describe mental illness determines the number of people who will be classified as dealing with this type of problem. A mental illness can be defined as any condition that interferes with the individual’s mood, feelings, behavior, or ability to think. There are many disorders which can be classified as mental illness. They all interfere with the person’s ability to live life to the fullest. Some conditions will only produce mild symptoms while others will create severe symptoms that may be impossible to ignore. At the same time, everyone has bad days when they are not mentally at their peak. People go through periods when they feel confused and anxious. The broader the definition of mental illness, the greater the number of people included in this category.
The Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders III (DSM-III) is the primary tool for diagnosing mental health problems. It was created by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980. The aim of this manual is to list all the characteristics of the different mental disorders. It is highly influential around the world because it simplifies the diagnosing of such disorders. It also fits in well with the biological approach for dealing with mental health problems.
The DSM-III has been criticized for its validity and reliability. There is a lack of supporting evidence to show that the different disorders listed in the book reflect the reality of mental illness. The diving lines between the different conditions may be far less clear than is suggested by this manual. The book has also been criticized because of its focus on symptoms rather than causes.
The DSM-III may contribute to the current mental illness epidemic. It may contribute to an increasing medicalization of human behavior. It is now far easier to be classified as having a mental disorder than it was in the past. This would account for a rise in the number of people classified this way. The DSM-III makes it easy for clinicians to produce a diagnosis. Critics would suggest that it has become too easy to do this.
The medicalization of mental health problems has meant an increase in the number and amount of drugs prescribed to treat these issues. In particular there has been a sharp rise in the use of psychoactive drugs. These are those chemicals that alter brain functioning.
Up until the 1950s it was usual to assign the cause of all types of mental ill-health to unresolved inner conflicts that could be treated with the right therapy, most often psychotherapy. In recent decades there has been a move to the other extreme where such problems are blamed on brain abnormalities. This is called the biological approach to psychiatry, and drug treatments are viewed as the key to improving people’s conditions. For a long time it was the brain that was ignored, but now it may be the mind that gets left out of the picture.
Psychiatry has been legitimated as a specialization of the medical profession, which includes training and authority in prescribing drugs. In this regard, psychiatrists have greater authority over other health care professionals working in the mental health field. Psychiatrists now have the dominant role in mental health care provision. For good or for ill, prescribing drugs for the symptoms associated with mental illness is more convenient, less expensive, and less time-consuming than looking for root causes. Many psychiatrists increasingly turn to these medications as a primary treatment for every type of disorder. So long as the individual appears to be doing better, these drug treatments are viewed as successful. Unfortunatley, these medications will often have unpleasant side-effects.
Criticisms of the Biological Approach to Psychiatry
The biological approach to psychiatry and the focus on prescribing psychoactive drugs has been criticized by many respected psychiatrists. R. D. Laing has claimed that the mentally ill are actually sane people trying to cope with an insane world. He opposes the view that mental health problems are simply biological in nature. He suggests instead that there needs to be close attention paid to intellectual, cultural, and social influences on the way people think and behave. Simply prescribing drugs to people is not necessarily improving their condition, but possibly only temporarily relieving suffering (itself a worthy goal).
The Biological Model and Addiction
Pharmaceutical companies have devoted a lot of money to researching medications to treat addiction. So far they have had limited success, but there are great expectations for the future. If a reliable drug could be found to treat the problem it would revolutionize the world of addiction recovery. Indeed, there are many drugs which can provide relief of symptoms as well as others which make the body react negatively to drugs or alcohol.
The danger with treating addiction with medication is that it may ignore the underlying causes of the problem. People may turn to substance abuse because they find life difficult to manage. If the only change is that they no longer take drugs or alcohol it won’t really be curing the problem. They will be still left feeling overwhelmed by life only now they can’t medicate themselves with addictive substances. Clearly more is needed than just getting people away from addiction. They also need help with developing skills so that they can cope better with life. No drug will help them do this.