For the last two weeks I've been posting about a course I've been taking called Psychology and Mental Health: Beyond Nature and Nurture. So far I've found it really interesting and it has challenged me to reflect on my practice and past cases.
Last week, we discussed the role of biological processes and mechanisms. We were urged to consider how our emotions, thoughts and behaviours are related to neurotransmitter and other biological mechanisms; and to appreciate how this shapes service provisions.
This week we were taught about the role of psychological mechanisms in the development of mental health problems and the maintenance of well-being. The material we were presented with highlighted a vital element to the ‘nature-nurture’ debate, asserting that it is through these psychological mechanisms that we interpret and respond to the world.
Many psychologists and psychiatrists believe that it's by looking at the nurture side of the equation, by looking at differences between people in terms of the things that happened to them that we can start to explain mental health issues. Our lecturer says that undoubtedly just from the sheer weight of evidence psychosocial events are the more powerful predictor.
We heard about Professor John Read, who believes that the best way to explain the origin of mental health problems - and especially differences between people - is by looking at life events and the different experiences we have in our lives.
To get things started we are presented with an article from The British Journal of Psychiatry within which Pat Bracken and colleagues set out an argument for a more social psychiatry; arguing that social factors are the most important determinants of our mental health. Here is their 2012 paper if you’d like to have a read yourself. They argue
“… that psychiatry is in the midst of a crisis. The various solutions proposed would all involve a strengthening of psychiatry’s identity as essentially ‘applied neuroscience’. Although not discounting the importance of the brain sciences and psychopharmacology, we argue that psychiatry needs to move beyond the dominance of the current, technological paradigm. This would be more in keeping with the evidence about how positive outcomes are achieved and could also serve to foster more meaningful collaboration with the growing service user movement…”.
They says that:
”… Although mental health problems undoubtedly have a biological dimension, in their very nature they reach beyond the brain to involve social, cultural and psychological dimensions. These cannot always be grasped through the epistemology of biomedicine. The mental life of humans is discursive in nature. … The evidence base is telling us that we need a radical shift in our understanding of what is at the heart (and perhaps soul) of mental health practice. If we are to operate in an evidence-based manner, and work collaboratively with all sections of the service user movement, we need a psychiatry that is intellectually and ethically adequate to deal with the sort of problems that present to it. As well as the addition of more social science and humanities to the curriculum of our trainees we need to develop a different sensibility towards mental illness itself and a different understanding of our role as doctors…”.
Next we looked at a paper recently published in the journal ‘Schizophrenia Bulletin’ by Filippo Varese and colleagues that I found very interesting as a Children’s Social Worker. Filippo and colleagues explored the link between traumatic childhood experiences (poverty, abuse, etc) and later psychotic experiences. We are told that their work was important because many people tend to think that such serious problems as hallucinations and delusional beliefs are quintessentially biological in origin, and this paper suggests an important social dimension.
They looked at a wide range of studies that examined the links between life events and later psychosis. Their conclusions were:
”…Evidence suggests that adverse experiences in childhood are associated with psychosis. To examine the association between childhood adversity and trauma (sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional/psychological abuse, neglect, parental death, and bullying) and psychosis outcome … we included 18 case-control studies… 10 prospective and quasi-prospective studies… and 8 population-based cross-sectional studies... There were significant associations between adversity and psychosis across all research designs …. patients with psychosis were 2.72 times more likely to have been exposed to childhood adversity than controls. The association between childhood adversity and psychosis was also significant ... These findings indicate that childhood adversity is strongly associated with increased risk for psychosis…”
We are directed to read a paper by Ben Barr and colleagues which looked at how the recent economic recession impacted on suicide rates - a rather dramatic (and sad) example of how social factors impact on our mental health. They found that between 2008 and 2010, there were 846 more suicides among men than would have been expected based on historical trends, and 155 more suicides among women.
Next we look at a paper in ‘The Psychologist’ by John Read which expresses some frustration at how attempts to integrate biological, social and psychological perspectives on mental health problems tend tacitly to assume that the most important elements are biological, with the social and psychological elements somewhat downplayed.
Read argues that people pay lip-service to the bio-psychosocial model, but undermine it in practice. He gives the example of a senior colleague who:
”…acknowledged some of the recent research about the role of psychosocial factors influencing schizophrenia. He concluded, however, that ‘the schizophrenia wars were over years ago’. He was referring to the truce established under the banner of the ‘bio-psycho-social’ model, which says that schizophrenia is an interaction between a genetically inherited predisposition and the triggering effect of social stressors…”
”…The simple truths are that human misery is largely inflicted by other people and that the solutions are best based on human – rather than chemical or electrical – interventions…”.
Reading this article I can’t help but remember the men I worked with at a service for ex-offenders with drug misuse issues. Most had a dual diagnosis, a number of them schizophrenia, and all had experienced some form of trauma in their childhood or youth. Each of them received medication to treat the condition but “human intervention” was patchy.
Our lecturer tells us that we know following 20, 30 years of research that there is no specific genetic predisposition to any of the mental health disorders. And we know that the best predictors by far of all of them, whether it's depression, suicidality, psychosis, are all life events. The strongest predictor all by itself is poverty. Not because poverty by itself causes depression, but because it is a predictor of all the other things that are causal. So poverty has been described as the cause of the causes. And those other causes are a whole raft of things - childhood neglect, childhood abuse, loneliness, and problematic parenting, which is usually inter-generational. It's not about bad parents, it's about parents who themselves haven't perhaps had the sort of childhood that predisposed them to good enough parenting.
This is why preventative services, family support and intervention are so vital. Parents need to be taught and supported to break this cycle; and so that children can be safeguarded in the care of their family. This week’s session has left me with little doubt that I favour the social model (this probably won’t come as a surprise to you as I am a Social Worker and Sociology graduate). I hope that following today’s general election we see a greater investment in mental health services as promised in so many of the parties manifestos. I also hope that the next government values children’s social care enough to invest in it and address the woefully inadequate funding for preventative / support services in this country. Spending cuts and austerity have most definitely fallen hardest on the most vulnerable.
Have a great week and don’t forget to follow me on facebook so you don’t miss next week’s post on psychology and mental health.
I'm a Qualified Children's Social Worker with a passion for safeguarding and family support in the UK.