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Matter over mind: physical causes of mental illness

The old argument that the roots of mental illness may lie in the body, not the mind, has been re-ignited by research

The old argument that the roots of mental illness may lie in the body, not the mind, has been re-ignited by research


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Reports that British scientists are exploring a new approach to treating schizophrenia, based on evidence that it could be a disease of the immune system, are sure to re-ignite old debates about whether mental illness has physical causes. Scientists are also exploring a possible link between low levels of chronic inflammation and depression.

You may ask: ‘So what?’ Is this really important? Leaving aside the massive commercial interests involved in developing treatments for the body to address mental illness, the answer is yes – it is of relevance to all of us.

Most effective ways to intervene

There are some very loud voices in this area, competing for research funding that supports these inquiries into mental illness and its causation. We need agreement on how to research not only the causes of what we call mental illness but also the most effective ways to intervene.

The arguments about the causes of mental illnesses are as old as the phenomena themselves and raise some serious questions about the nature of human consciousness. These debates can sound like bald men arguing over a comb, but they contain important issues.

Nurses stuck in the middle

It is tempting to envy colleagues in physical healthcare who can actually see – to a molecular level – why people are ill or are victims to disease. No one would question the existence of kidney disease, but I have heard plenty of arguments that mental illness does not exist.

As nurses, we find ourselves stuck in the middle of such debates and trying to make sense of them as we care for people and their families who are caught up in the maelstrom that mental illness can cause.

What should we do? It may seem trite, but among all these debates we need to remain focused on the most fundamentally important issue at stake: that is to endeavour to not lose sight of the individual and their needs.


Ian Hulatt is consultant editor of Mental Health Practice

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