Some of the most common mental disorders, including depression, anxiety and PTSD, might not be disorders at all, according to a recent paper by Washington State University biological anthropologists.

In the paper, published in the Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, the researchers propose a new approach to mental illness that would be informed by human evolution, noting that modern psychology, and in particular its use of drugs like antidepressants, has largely failed to reduce the prevalence of mental disorders. (This paper was made available online on Nov. 28, 2019 ahead of final publication in the issue on April 28, 2020). For example, the global prevalence of major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders remained steady at 4.4% and 4% respectively from 1990 to 2010.

Kristen Syme.
Syme

The authors also theorize that depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder may be primarily responses to adversity; therefore, only treating the “psychic pain” of these issues with drugs will not solve the underlying problem. Kristen Syme, the first author on the paper and recent WSU Ph.D. graduate, compared it to medicating someone for a broken bone without setting the bone itself.

“The pain is not the disease; the pain is the function that is telling you there is a problem,” said Syme. “Depression, anxiety and PTSD often involve a threat or exposure to violence, which are predictable sources for these things that we call mental diseases. Instead, they look more like sociocultural phenomena, so the solution is not necessarily fixing a dysfunction in the person’s brain but fixing dysfunctions in the social world.”

Ed Hagen.
Hagen

Syme and co-author Edward Hagen advocate for biological anthropologists to enter the study of the “diseases of the mind,” to help find effective solutions, particularly for some problems that may be social instead of mental.

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