Depression Isn’t Just A Chemical Imbalance: It’s A Signal


Authors: Sarah Mann and Caleb Spiro, MA

The Value of Psychiatric Medication

Psychiatric medication can be life changing and even life-saving. It can help our brains to restore connections, replenish neurotransmitters, and help regulate brain chemistry. For some conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder it can be a necessary part of treatment, and it is not possible for some people to fully avoid symptoms without psychiatric treatment. Medications can help stabilize mood, improve focus, and facilitate accomplishing tasks that otherwise seem insurmountable. It is true that mental health conditions are partly biological and just as real as a heart problem or broken leg.

A Holistic View of Mental Health

At the same time, conceptualizing all conditions (including anxiety, depression, OCD, or Borderline Personality Disorder) as only a malfunction in brain chemistry, or simply just a malfunction of the brain as a whole, is not accurate to what science has to say about it today.  We don’t live in a vacuum. Prescribing medication without acknowledging environmental, interpersonal, and emotional factors will not solve the problem of why we feel disconnected, depressed, anxious, worthless, or overwhelmed. Many times, medication alone not only fails to solve the root issue, it can also create unwanted side effects. Put simply, although medication can be incredibly helpful, it is never the full solution for most mental health disorders.

Consider the Function of Emotions

Interestingly, the human body has evolved to communicate our needs through emotions and sensations, which sometimes are unpleasant or painful. For example, when we are hungry, we feel hollow and crave food. When we are sleepy, we have headaches and difficulty staying awake. When we are sick, we crave rest and have less energy. When we are sad, there is likely something in our environment that is painful, and hence, our body creates emotion so we can consciously orient towards the problem and potential solutions. When we experience physical sensations, including complex emotions, it requires increasing our awareness and then deciding how we should go about resolving them. Similarly, mental illnesses often communicate to us that something in our lives is not working for us, or that there are issues we have not dealt with.

Using All of the Tools in the Repertoire

If someone is feeling depressed, lonely, disconnected, or worthless, one of the best treatments is to help build a sense of connection, self-worth, and create a pathway that makes life worth living. Psychiatric medication can be an excellent tool to help dampen or slightly increase certain emotions while someone learns healthy coping skills to make better decisions and live in ways that are more consistent with their values.

Seeking Professional Help

Johann Hari has an excellent talk about the importance of connection and environment in mental health, and why our society needs to shift our view of mental illness from only a “chemical imbalance” to that of a more holistic model. Social support and therapy can be one of the most powerful and effective ways to combat mental illnesses.

At the Youth and Family Institute, we provide high-quality therapy, skills training, and comprehensive medication treatment by partnering with a team of Los Angeles-based psychiatrists to provide the best possible treatment outcomes for our patients. Holistic health is comprehensive health.


This could be why you’re depressed or anxious” – Presented for TED Talks by Johann Hari on October 11, 2019. Watch Video


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