Biological treatments of mental illness and abnormality
Biological treatments act directly on the biological mechanisms that cause, or are involved in, mental illness. This can be, for example, by altering the function or availability of a neurotransmitter, changing the way certain cells in the nervous system function, or removing dysfunctional parts of the nervous system. The three main biological treatments for mental illness are:
- Drug treatments
- Electroconvulsive therapy
Drugs that have been found to usefully treat mental illnesses generally work by changing the amount of a neurotransmitter that is available at a synapse. If, for example, a certain neurotransmitter causes a certain behaviour then stopping the neurotransmitter working, by making less of it available, may reduce the behaviour it causes. Similarly, it may be useful to increase the quantity of a certain neurotransmitter so the the behaviour it affects may be increased.
- Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that has been found to be involved in depression. A class of drugs called SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) work by stopping nerve cells reabsorbing the serotonin they have released into the synapse, thereby increasing the amount of serotonin that is available. SSRIs are a very effective treatment for depression and include drugs such as Prozac (fluoxetine) and Seroxat (paroxetine).
- Benzodiazepine drugs are commonly used to treat stress, anxiety and high blood pressure. They work by blocking receptors that are usually activated by adrenaline and noradrenaline, meaning that the body is less able to produce extreme and unhealthy sympathetic nervous system responses.
- Another class of drugs that work on noradrenaline synapses is monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). These stop the enzyme monoamine oxidase breaking down noradrenaline, and therefore increase the amount of noradrenaline that is available at the synapse. Low levels of noradrenaline in certain areas of the brain has been linked with depression, and so MAOIs are an effective antidepressant.
- Antipsychotic drugs, which are often used to treat schizophrenia, work by reducing the amounts of dopamine at synapses in certain areas of the brain.
Evaluating drug treatments
- Drug treatments have been found to be effective in treating many many illnesses, and in many cases the improvement seen is very quick (e.g. antidepressant drugs may relieve many of the symptoms of depression in just a couple of weeks). However, as is argued by Kirsch & Saperstein (1998), much of the benefit may be due to the placebo effect. The placebo effect is where a drug has an effect simply because the patients expects it to, rather than the actual chemicals in the drug.
- Many drugs have side effects that can, in some cases, be more unpleasant than the illness they are supposed to be treating. Many antidepressants cause nausea, dizziness and even anxiety at first. Antipsychotic drugs may cause movement disorders and tremors. Doctors and patients have to weigh up the possible benefits of using a certain drug against the negative effects it may cause.
- Drugs are an intervention that treat the symptoms of many mental illnesses and do not address the cause. Antidepressants may elevate a person's mood so they are able to return to a normal life, but they do not necessarily address the cause of the depression, which is often psychological.
- The use of drugs to treat mental illness raises many ethical concerns, particularly when they are used in mental institutions against a patent's will. Critics have argued that the drugs are not effectively treating mental disorders, but instead are sedating patients to make them compliant and manageable.