By Erin Hebler – There is No Evidence of a Chemical Imbalance in Mental Illness

The seratonin molecule causes depression, according to the chemical imbalance theory

The seratonin molecule causes depression, according to the chemical imbalance theory

Physicians told the nearly 28 million Americans, who take prescribed selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRI) for depression,  that a biochemical defect — a chemical  impalance in the brain — caused their distress.

No longer do psychiatrists treat patients as individuals, with complex problems to be worked through in some kind of supportive talk therapy, but as a collection of neurotransmitters in need of a jump start.  A 7-minute office visit produces a prescription for the latest “happy pill” on the market.
“Never has a theory with so little scientific evidence been so widely accepted by the American public,” says Jonathan Leo, associate professor of  at Western University of Health Sciences and author of Broken Brains : Flawed Studies and The Biology of Mental Illness (2004).

Looking for a Chemical Fix for Emotional Distress

Three of the seven most prescribed drugs are anti-depressants, for seratonin imbalances, Leo says.  His essay exposes:
  1. major flaws and lack of evidence in the chemical imbalance theory of a biochemical cause of mental illness,
  2. marketization and capitalization of a big pharmaceutical (pharma) business model for power and profit,
  3. benefits that would come from prohibiting diagnostic labels for mental illness, and
  4. the need to terminate generalized treatments of psychotropic medications until there is evidence that biochemical deficits cause mental illness.
The fundamental premise of biological psychiatry is that mental disorders are “organic” diseases caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, that a patient showing “symptoms” is suffering from subnormal levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin.  At the root of every twisted thought lurks a twisted molecule, the chemical imbalance theory says.
Consequently, a content individual can have a life-altering chemical imbalance causing them to act, think, and be a certain way any time, requiring “help” from a medical “cure.”

No Credible Evidence or Diagnostic Test for a Chemical Imbalance



Diabetes is the closet analogy to clinical mental disorder, the theory goes. One individual is short on insulin, another on serotonin.   The first needs insulin, the latter Prozac (or another name brand). Yet no person has ever been able to prove a difference in the brain chemistry of people with mental health labels.

There is no diagnostic test today that can show that you have a mental illness
due to a chemical imbalance.  Until there is physical evidence establishing otherwise, it has no place in Pharma marketing, or social agendas.
In Psyched Out:  How Psychiatry Sells Mental Illness, and Pushes Pills that Kill  (Author House, 2004, pp.47-48), Kelly O’Meary says,  “it is fair to say that, if objective, confirmable proof of a ‘neurological chemical imbalance’ were required prior to filling a prescription for any of the psychotropic mind-altering antidepressant drugs that reportedly correct the ‘chemical imbalance in the brain,’ not a single prescription would be written, because the only known method of determining chemical levels in the brain is during autopsy.”

An Attempt to Link Psychosis to a Chemical Imbalance

In a  study of psychotropic drugs, Hyman and Nester  (The American Journal of Psychiatry; 153, 2; pg 151-162) tried to prove a correlation between the chemical imbalance in the brain and psychosis:
Another seratonin imbalance medicine

Another seratonin imbalance medicine

“Physiological studies of divergent monoamine projections suggest that they are not involved in neurotransmitting specific details about the world, but in such global functions as control of arousal, attention, vigilance, and mood states. G protein receptors on their target neutrons influence the responsiveness of neural circuits to excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmissions,” (Hyman & Nestler, 1996)

However, all they managed to prove is the lack of understanding of a causal, and correlation between brain chemicals and psychosis.  In the latter portion of their own article, they say:
“This situation is more complicated than this. We lack an understanding of the precise adaptations which occur in response to antidepressants that lead to the relief of symptoms.  But what we do have are advances in molecular and cellular biology that now support a framework within which to [study] the effects of psychotropic drugs on the brain,” they say.
What do we do with this information?
At best, they have is a “framework” that can begin to “support” the outcomes in molecular and cellular biology that they possess, but they still have no causal or correlational proof that any of this directly links to mental illness.

Placebo is Almost as Good as Prozac

A 1998 analysis by Irving Kirsch and associates, under the Freedom of Information Act, gathered and investigated data submitted to the FDA, to clearly demonstrate the placebo response being responsible for the majority of the therapeutic effect of SSRI’s.
With Prozac, the placebo response duplicated 89 percent of the drug response.  The difference between the response to antidepressant drugs and the placebo is nearly non-existent.  Researchers and FDA reviewers call it the “dirty little secret,”   (Leo, 2004).
Another seratonin pill for depression

Another seratonin pill for depression

In another example of staged attention to partial facts to hide damaging information, many studies compare anti-anxiety drugs to talk therapy at 4 weeks, 8 weeks, 16 weeks, etc.

In most cases, a distorted sales pitch is almost sure to follow from this protocol, an advertisement trumpeting a “virtual cure” for the panic attacks in just four weeks, but concealing findings that, at  eight weeks the advantage over the placebo had disappeared.
Beyond eight weeks, patients on the medication were having more panic attacks than before they started treatment.

People Labeled with Schizophrenia Do Better Without Medication, Study Shows

A study comparing people diagnosed with schizophrenia in poor and rich countries throughout the world showed patients in poor countries, that used less medication, did better than medically-treated people in rich countries, by practically every measure.
 They were less likely to become chronically sick,  more likely to be fully recovered and faring well in society, and less likely to relapse than those in the rich countries. The only differing variable was that psychiatrists in rich countries prescribed psychotropic drugs much more often and freely than those in the poorer countries.   Only 16 percent of patients in the poor countries were maintained on drugs, compared to 61 percent of the rich countries’ patients.  The most damaging outcome was that,  for those being treated on psychotropic drugs, it was unlikely that the drug would ever let up on its grip (Leo, 2004).
There is a need and a place for research into the theory that some kind of chemical imbalance mental illness might underlie mental illness,  but until then,  responsible professionals, government agenicies, advocacy groups, and drug companies should refrain from tricking people into thinking they are sick and need a “miracle pill.”

Does your experience support the chemical imbalance theory?

Hyman, S. & Nestler, E. (1996). “Initiation and Adaptation: A Paradigm for Understanding
Psychotropic Drug Action. The American Journal of Psychiatry; 153, 2; pg 151- 162.
Leo, J. (2004). “The Biology of Mental Illness.”
Leo, J. & Lacasse, J. (2007). “The Media and The Chemical Imbalance Theory of Depression,”
O’Meara, K. (2006). Psyched Out: How psychiatry Sells Mental Illness and Pushes Pills that Kill.
Author House, pp. 47-48

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