For years we’ve been told that depression is caused by low serotonin levels in the brain. Now, a leading professor of psychiatry is warning that belief is little more than a dangerous miscommunication, saying the marketing of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) drugs is “based on a myth.”
SSRI use began to skyrocket in the early 1990’s. The drugs were seen as a safer alternative to tranquilizers, which were the standard treatment for depression until that time. Despite being weaker than old-style tricyclic antidepressants, they grew in popularity because it was believed they restored serotonin levels back to normal, “a notion that later transmuted into the idea that they remedied a chemical imbalance,” said David Healy, head of psychiatry at the Hergest psychiatric unit in Bangor, North Wales.
Healy wrote in a report published in the journal BMJ that in the 1990s, no one knew if SSRIs raised or lowered serotonin levels, but there was no evidence that the treatment worked as a treatment at all. The drugs have fewer side effects than their predecessors, and are safer in overdose, which contributed to their popularity.
“For doctors it provided an easy short hand for communication with patients,” Healy wrote. ‘For patients, the idea of correcting an abnormality has a moral force that can be expected to overcome the scruples some might have had about taking a tranquilliser, especially when packaged in the appealing form that distress is not a weakness.’
Healy says depression should be reclassified as an infectious disease rather than an emotional disorder, and the professor is not alone in his thinking. Dr. Turhan Canli of Stony Brook University in New York believes depression could be caused by a parasitic, bacterial, or viral infection and argues in favor of further research to test his hypothesis. If this is the case, Canli says scientists could develop a vaccine to protect against depression (a solution Natural Society isn’t sure is the right one).