Philosophy, Science

Mapping Depression Beyond The Chemical Imbalance Myth

Synchronicity signals something significant unfolding. Usually, that significance is an emerging insight. But occasionally, personal synchronicities relate to collective emergence. Recently, these synchronicities related to a process I was going through with reframing mental illness. I read Thomas Szasz’s Ideology and Insanity, discovered by chance at a bookstore, weeks before a significant review was published, which argues there is “no convincing evidence” the chemical imbalance theory of depression is true.

Szasz, a visionary in the field of psychiatry, predicted this. One of the essays and title of another one of his books, The Myth of Mental Illness, was written back in the 1960s. As the titles suggests, Szasz articulates a piercing critique of mental illness, arguing that its conceptualization is a myth that imprisons people and serves the state. He also criticised the act of classifying human behaviour as a disease:

“Only man creates symbols and is influenced by them. Accordingly, being placed in certain classes affects people, whereas it does not affect animals and things. You call a person ‘schizophrenic’, and something happens to him; you call a rat ‘rat’ and a rock ‘granite’ and nothing happens to them. In other words, in psychiatry and in human affairs generally, the act of classification is an exceedingly significant event.”

Thomas Szasz, ideology and insanity

This ideology permeates modern-day thinking. A survey by Psychology Today found that 85-90 percent of people believe the chemical imbalance myth. For those directly affected, the slow dismantling of this theory will leave confusion and perhaps a re-living of the distress of not having their experience taken seriously. It’s clear we need a map of depression which offers an expansive view of the experience, inclusive of the soul.

Having been clinically depressed, suicidal, and reliant on antidepressants a number of times in my life, I’ve lived the myth. So what better time to dive into a topic I’ve pondered for years? I’ve written two articles. One exploring the bigger picture, and one exploring insights from deconstructing depression from within. To start, let’s consider what an updated map would look like.

Please note: the following exploration is written with the intention to empower everyone, to include everyone, and to promote an approach that sees depression with compassion and kindness, whilst respecting every person’s agency and resourcefulness.

Consciousness and the brain

The relationship between mind and matter has been a contentious issue for generations of thought-leaders, so much so, consciousness is sometimes called the ‘hard problem’ of science. How does conscious experience emerge from a material substance, the brain? The answer is: it doesn’t. The prevailing worldview of materialism is seen as truth, rather than a belief system, despite the emergence of quantum physics over 100 years ago.

“Very few people, including most scientists, realize that we have absolutely no proof that consciousness is actually produced by the brain and not even a remote notion of how something like that could possibly happen. In spite of it, this basic metaphysical assumption remains one of the leading myths of Western materialistic science and has a profound influence on our entire society.”

Stanislav grof

Another attribute of this worldview is cause and effect. Uncovering smaller and smaller aspects of reality give the appearance that causes are found in the atomic or the chemical. Like Szasz’s reservations about classifying behaviour, using the scientific method and mechanical thinking to dissect humanity is an error. It suggests that human experience can be distilled into chemical processes — including love, awe, the striving for fulfilment, or the search for meaning.

Conventional neuroscience monitors changes in the brain as if they are the cause of inner experience, rather than the effect of consciousness. Neuroscience actually captures the miracle of mind over matter; neuroplasticity proves how consciousness shapes the physical structure of the brain. Still, the material worldview remains dominant, partly due to the economic and political power of pharmaceutical companies that tilt the balance toward profit, away from truth.

Worldview-building and language shaping is the foundation of marketing. Enter the chemical imbalance theory. One study, from 2005, criticised the advertising campaigns of drugs such as Zoloft — the best-selling antidepressant in America with over $3 billion in sales — for not matching marketing slogans with scientific literature. These campaigns were backed by hundreds of millions of dollars, delivered directly to TVs, radios, and billboards.

For some, temporarily taking antidepressants offers respite from the pervasive experience of depression, as it did for me, more than once. But this isn’t the end-point, no matter what marketing slogans promise. To offer effective solutions, we first have to examine the worldview in which they operate.

Assumptions, language, and worldviews

When unexamined, entire fields of ‘expertise’ form around worldviews, skewing their accuracy. Sometimes this is deliberate, such as marketing practices, lobbying, or propaganda. Other times, these assumptions are unconscious because they’ve not been investigated, or mistaken as truth. Worldviews are far-reaching conceptual maps of reality, disseminated in many forms, including governments, profit-driven organizations, education systems, the news media, and entertainment, such as film, TV, and literature.

Reality is based on mutual agreements and structures that operate together. Information is organised in different ways. The type of organisation I’m referring to, that of reality-shaping, is a mechanistic or bureaucratic structure, with a top-down approach. Under each category is a sub-category. All forms of accepted and credible knowledge and understanding have their roots in this worldview. When there are competing narratives, maps, or bodies of knowledge, mainstream institutions aim to promote this chain-of-command and colonise other ideologies with their way of thinking.

By examining the ‘world’ from within, you deconstruct the way in which it was built.

The root of the collective worldview is reductionist materialism, which is in close relationship to the scientific method and ‘objective’ study. The mainstream fields of science, philosophy, psychology, and medicine are subcategories of this model. There are competing models of reality, even within these fields (see quantum physics, transpersonal psychology, etc), but the material view is dominant. In Mindsets for Mindfulness, I call this the disenchanted worldview, because it has no room for the miraculous, or ‘impossible’ interactions of mind and matter.

Worldviews operate to scale. You’ll find traces of the mainstream worldview in all areas of life; the language used to describe, categorise, or classify objects. When these models are internalized, they become your model of reality. Most people don’t notice this, but they shape your thoughts, beliefs, and mode of understanding.

Ideally, the collective worldview would be as close to truth as possible, like a sentient being that updates and evolves as new knowledge is discovered, or false knowledge is corrected. This is the ethos (but not the practice) behind science. The reality is that those with power and influence shape the worldview, and truth isn’t a priority. They do so by shaping language. Szasz emphasises this as the ideology of insanity:

“Another [way] is to conceal the social realities behind the fictional facade of what we call, after Wittgenstein, ‘language games.’ While psychiatric language games seem fanciful, the psychiatric idiom is actually only a dialect of the common language of oppressors.”

Complexity beyond a label

Throwing away all classification will cause chaos. Instead, we have to focus on the context within which our understanding, and our solutions, are created. I agree with Szasz on the limiting nature of classification, and the value of understanding the process and motivation behind it, including the distortions of truth. Once this is addressed, there’s a need to view every person holistically and move away from reducing people to labels.

Depression is a label that operates outside of its job description. It attempts to categorise too many experiences. Depression is a complex, multi-faceted human experience. The depression someone feels after the death of a loved one, is different from the depression one feels having lost a job, which is different from an existential depression of questioning your life’s purpose, or your role in the cosmos. Sometimes depression is unprocessed trauma, grief, self-judgement, resistance to troubling emotions.

When a label becomes an identity, it outlives its purpose and becomes restrictive

Depression, and all other classifications of mental illness, serve a limited purpose. All labels have a half-life. When I was first diagnosed with clinical depression, I was relieved. There was something medically wrong, it wasn’t my fault. It gave me something to point to, a way to validate my suffering. However, when a label becomes an identity, it outlives its purpose and becomes restrictive, placing a conceptual limitation on what’s possible.

But what if we approach all experiences as an opportunity, to heal, to learn, to grow? Changing thinking patterns, meditating, breathwork, improved diet, and releasing suppressed emotions, all change our physiology. The dominant worldview overlooks the power of the mind, yet an abundance of research shows the placebo effect is frequently more powerful than cutting-edge medicine. There is a role for medicine, of course, but it has to be put in its rightful place.

A call to action

Depression as a chemical imbalance fits the dogma of scientism, which is spiralling into Godlike, laboratory-engineered, biohacked salvation. But this myth is coming to an end. And this is cause for jubilation. The wider complexity and causes of depression can’t be ignored or silenced with a prescription. It’s time for consciousness’ influence over the brain and the body to be integrated into the mainstream, alongside our divine nature.

Collectively this is a call for a new myth, not from grandiosity or immature escape, but an embodied experience of diving into the depths of the psyche. All of us are called to connect deeply to ourselves, to start our own hero’s journey. Beyond the chemical myth of depression is a rich landscape of consciousness waiting to be explored, and this landscape needs an updated map. There’s work to be done, and the journey requires courage, humility, and connection to something bigger than the self.

But as spiritual visionaries and explorers of the psyche, in all forms, remind us time and time again, there’s nothing to truly be feared within. The natural human tendency is towards wholeness, a process supported by love, far beyond our limited self-image or intellectual understanding.

We can’t be defined by chemistry or atoms or bodily functions. We’re so much more than that. And the realisation of that truth comes from looking within and finding the creative force of the cosmos.

Published by Ricky Derisz

Spirituality Coach and Meditation Teacher devoted to understanding the human psyche and nature of consciousness. Undergoing a life-long process of minding my ego.

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