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Many people believe that mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, with one survey finding that about 80 percent believe that depression is due to some sort of chemical imbalance.
While the true causes of mental illness are likely much more complex, some have advocated for talking about mental illness this way to reduce stigma. If we talk about mental illness as if it were a “brain disease” and refer primarily to its biological causes, then people would be less likely to believe that mental illness is caused by a weakness of character. Mental illness would not be the fault of an individual, but rather, their biology.
However, this well-intentioned way of framing mental illness can backfire. One study found that talking about mental illness as if it were a brain disease and due to purely biological causes, rather than something that is due to psychosocial causes like childhood trauma, can lead people to treat those who suffer from mental illness more harshly. This may be because the “brain disease” framing conveys that people who have mental illness are physically distinct, which can lead to a sense of othering. If someone is perceived as having different biology than us, it might be harder to have empathy for them because we do not see them as like us.
This framing may also be damaging for the people suffering from mental illnesses, making them think it is unlikely that they will recover. One study found that when people were told their depression was caused by a chemical imbalance, they showed more pessimism about recovering. The “chemical imbalance” framing tacitly suggests that mental illness is permanent – “wired” into someone’s brain, instead of something that can potentially improve through treatment.