Stop comparing depression to diabetes

At the recent gubernatorial candidates forum on mental health, Martha Coakley repeated the oft-heard phrase that depression is like diabetes. Her motivation was good, the idea being to reduce the stigma of mental illness, and to offer “parity” or equal insurance coverage, for mental and physical illness. However, I am concerned that this phrase, and its companion, “ADHD is like diabetes,” will, in fact, have the exact opposite effect.

A recent New York Times op-ed, “The Trouble with Brain Science,” helped me to put my finger on what is troubling about these statements. Psychologist Gary Marcus identifies the need for a bridge between neuroscience and psychology that does not currently exist.

Diabetes is a disorder of insulin metabolism. Insulin is produced in the pancreas. The above analogies disregard the intimate intertwining of brain and mind. For the pancreas, there is no corresponding “mind” that exists in the realm of feelings and relationships.

While there is some emerging evidence of the brain structures involved in the collection of symptoms named by the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), there are no known biological processes corresponding to depression, ADHD or any other diagnosis in the DSM.

These collections of symptoms, intimately intertwined with feelings and relationships, are problems of behavioral and emotional regulation. The capacity for emotional regulation develops in relationships.  If DSM diagnoses can only be legitimized by comparing them to diabetes — and food allergies, as was recently done by the director of the NIMH (National Institute for Mental Health) — this comparison may increase, rather than decrease the stigma by devaluing relationships and our basic human need for meaningful connection.

The primary treatment for diabetes is a drug. This analogy works if we accept that the primary treatment for mental illness is drugs. The pharmaceutical industry would be pleased with this approach.

But, in fact, the primary treatment for problems of emotional well-being is time. What is needed is time and space for listening, where individuals can have the opportunity to have their feelings recognized and understood. In this time and space, people can make sense of, and find meaning in, their experience.

A model that compares depression to diabetes is an illness model. It promotes a kind of “there is something wrong with you and I will fix it” approach.   It is not simply a question of “therapy vs. medication” as many “evidence-based” research studies suggest. It is a question of a completely different model, a resilience model. Such a model, that values time and space for listening and being heard, seeks to help people reconnect with their most competent selves.

But we will only get there is we stop comparing depression to diabetes.

Claudia M. Gold is a pediatrician who blogs at Child in Mind and is the author of Keeping Your Child in Mind.

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