Since the 1970s, psychiatrists have often depicted mental disorders as diseases. We’ve all heard the expressions: “Depression is like diabetes.” “Schizophrenia is like cancer.”
Many thought that the disease metaphor would reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. That’s because it doesn’t see depression or delusions as moral failures or character defects. It sees them as due to chemical imbalances.
But does the disease metaphor actually help people with mental illnesses? A growing body of evidence suggests that framing mental illness as a disease doesn’t so much alleviate stigma, but replace one stigma for another.
While the disease metaphor can reduce blame, it can also increase the perception that people with disorders are dangerous and can’t be cured. People who accept biological explanations tend to have lowered expectations about their ability to get better.
An alternative paradigm sees depression as nature’s evolved “signal” that not everything is well with my relationships or plans. It’s designed to push us to reflect on our lives and make the necessary changes.
A groundbreaking new study, recently published in Social Science and Medicine, provides evidence that the purpose paradigm might actually promote healing. It was led by Hans Schroder, a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and clinical psychologist at the University of Michigan.
Schroder has long thought that depression could be evolution’s signal that something in one’s life needs attention. The question he poses here is how that framing impacts recovery.