Should we be offering explanations to people of their 'mental health' problems based purely on whether it is associated with stigma or not
— Keith R Laws (@Keith_Laws) June 25, 2013
Those who responded to this question on Twitter pointed out correctly that it is "absurd" and morally problematic to ignore or suppress the truth about the cause of mental disorder in favour of the narrative you want to tell. I agree, but these answers don't do justice to the most interesting possible ramifications of the research. In their conclusion to the paper, the authors make it fairly clear that they are not advocating the promotion of inaccurate accounts:
"Mental health professionals should not misinform their clients and the public by withholding information about the biogenetic factors that underpin psychological problems." (emphasis mine)Unfortunately, the waters muddy somewhat when it comes to describing what they are advocating:
"However, our findings indicate that this must be done with considerable caution. Explanations that invoke biogenetic factors may reduce blame but they may have unfortunate side-effects, and they should not be promoted at the expense of psychosocial explanations, which appear to have more optimistic implications."What the second half of this passage sadly misses, in its haste to decry the dominance of "biogentic factors", is that the best explanations of the causes of mental health problems would accurately communicate the complexity of genetic causation. It is this complexity that can easily get lost in public debate and everyday healthcare. Having a genetic predisposition to a particular problem doesn't always mean the same thing in the public imagination as it does in reality.
Biology is one determinant of our thoughts, feelings and behaviour; at the same time we retain some quantity of agency (possibly itself biologically determined, but let's steer clear of that philosophical rabbit hole for now), which we are able to exercise to change them. This capacity is not limitless and it varies with the nature of mental health problems, but it is real. People are changed, to some degree, by how they think of themselves (this is what is meant by Ian Hacking's idea about the "Looping Effects of Human Kinds") and if they weren't, there would be no point in any psychotherapeutic intervention.
We can't know very much from this paper about the nature of the disorders or the explanations that are being studied, but it does raise two possibilities that should be further explored. When people with mental health diagnoses attribute their problems to "bio-genetic causes" they may be 1. failing to do justice to the richness of what this really means and 2. buying into an unwarranted therapeutic pessimism that impacts on prognosis.
I'd be among the first to point out that this sort of research gets hijacked and over-simplified by well-meaning advocacy groups who just want to replace one narrative with another, but the fact remains that what it means for genes to have an impact on behaviour is frequently misunderstood. Highlighting the potential public health ramifications of overly simple, overly certain forms of understanding is an important part of public science communication.
1: Kvaale, E. P., Haslam, N., & Gottdiener, W. H. (2013). The ‘side effects’ of medicalization: A meta-analytic review of how biogenetic explanations affect stigma. Clinical Psychology Review.