By Lindsay Holmes
One of the most established arguments in the fight against mental health stigma is a biological one. Those struggling with mental illness deserve the same level of empathy as those struggling with physical illness, the narrative goes. To accomplish this, many highlight the underlying neurological and chemical explanations for their disorders.
But according to a new study, this may be a losing strategy: A team of researchers from Yale University found that doctors were less compassionate toward mental health patients when their illnesses were described by biological rather than emotional terms.
"Biological explanations are like a double-edged sword," Matthew Lebowitz, lead study author, said in a statement. "They tend to make patients appear less blameworthy but the overemphasis on biology to explain psychopathology can be dehumanizing by reducing people to mere biological mechanisms."
Researchers asked therapists and psychiatrists to review mental health patients' symptoms, which were explained either through genetics and neurobiology or by childhood experiences and stressful life circumstances. Despite common wisdom that biological explanations for mental health issues should reduce the shame patients receive for their condition, clinicians in the study reported feeling less compassionate toward patients whose symptoms were explained by biological factors.
The clinicians also viewed psychotherapy as a less viable treatment option when reviewing the patients' biological explanations, which the authors note is quite problematic. According to previous research, psychotherapy is one of the most effective ways to treat mental health disorders.
The study provides a surprising perspective to the challenge of fighting stigma associated with mental health issues. Only 25 percent of people with mental health disorders feel that others are caring and understanding about their condition. Experts stress that mental illness is not something under a patient's control, reaffirming the notion that biological reasoning for psychiatric conditions should bring out more empathy from others -- not less.
Instead, it seems, doctors are as subject as the rest of us to the power of personal narrative. "We're certainly not saying that people should ignore biological factors when studying mental disorders, but it's crucial to understand biology as something that's part of all human experience, rather than something that separates so-called mentally ill people from everyone else," Woo-kyoung Ahn, Yale professor of psychology and study co-author, wrote in the report.
The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.