Psychiatric disorders — like autism, depression, and schizophrenia — take a terrible toll on human suffering. We know much less about their treatment and the understanding of their basic mechanisms than we do about diseases of the body.
Think about it: in 2013 — the second decade of the millennium — if you’re concerned about a cancer diagnosis, and you go to your doctor, you get bone scans, biopsies, and blood tests. In 2013, if you’re concerned about a depression diagnosis, you go to your doctor and what do you get? A questionnaire.
Part of the reason for this is that we have an oversimplified and increasingly outmoded view of the biological basis of psychiatric disorders. We tend to view them — and the popular press aids and abets this view — as ‘chemical imbalances’ in the brain, as if the brain were some kind of chemical soup full of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.
This view is conditioned by the fact that many of the drugs that are prescribed to treat these disorders, like Prozac, act by globally changing brain chemistry, as if the brain were indeed a bag of chemical soup.
But that can’t be the answer, because these drugs actually don’t work all that well. A lot of people won’t take them, or stop taking them, because of their unpleasant side effects. These drugs have so many side effects, because using them to treat a complex psychiatric disorder is a bit like trying to change your engine oil by opening a can and pouring it all over the engine block. Some of it will drip into the right place, but a lot of it will do more harm than good.