07/02/2013 09:58 EDT | Updated 07/02/2013 09:58 EDT

Why We Can't Ignore Science When We Talk About Mental Illness

Scientists have a long way to go to discover a cause and a cure for illnesses like schizophrenia. There is no cure now but symptoms can be alleviated with proper medication, and psycho-social treatments. Focusing on only one theory and treatment modality does everyone a disservice.

"Know Science -- No Stigma" is the slogan for the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation originally started in 1981 by families. It is now a leading private funder of mental health research. It is science that will help to dispel stigma and it is the efforts of thousands of scientists who will one day solve the mystery of mental illness.

Regrettably, there are still many who fail to understand the scientific method and continue to focus on outdated theories wearing blinkers. One such group is Intervoice about whom Susan Inman wrote a recent Huffington Post critique. In addition to garnering well over 700 likes and over 400 Facebook shares, Ms. Inman has been the target of intense criticism from the group and its supporters, and in those criticisms, they've revealed their true colours.

There was a time when schizophrenia was considered to be caused by mothers but that concept has been long gone -- or so we thought. The National Alliance On Mental Illness (NAMI) in the U.S. was initially begun by two mothers in Wisconsin who were tired of being blamed for their sons' schizophrenia. In Canada, the Friends of Schizophrenics (now the Schizophrenia Society), was founded by Dorothy and Bill Jefferies for similar reasons.

But, according to a media representative of Intervoice posting as VoicesUnLtd on Inman's blog:

"...a better explanation for the development of mental health and other complex health problems than the 'brain illness' theory:

'It is increasingly recognized that experiences of child maltreatment are rarely isolated incidents; different forms of abuse often co-occur, and trauma often develops over prolonged periods...There is a substantial body of evidence linking the experience of hearing voices and other psychotic experiences to trauma and abuse in adults and children.'"

However, research shows that schizophrenia is likely caused by a combination of genes and environment and different brain chemistry and structure, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). But not for Intervoice.

When it comes to the NIMH, the Intervoice rep further commented, "'Schizophrenia is a chronic, severe, and disabling brain disorder' (according to the NIMH) but provides no proof to support this asertion (sic)."

On the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, he commented, "By the way when you said the basic research in neuroscience is funded by agencies like Brain and Behavior Research rather than drug companies you neglected to mention that they receive funding from SIX pharma companies. Not so independent then?"

The rep also asserted, "The scientists who say that SZ is a proven disease are the ones who have to come up with the evidence." He quotes a passage from APA Clinical Guidelines and concludes, "Note how many 'may be', 'is thought', 'associated', 'experts agree' -- No evidence that there is no proof only professional speculation. SZ remains a construct."

Nor does he believe in any genetic involvement, either. He further commented:

"New methods of molecular genetics have been used to study psychiatric patients, no genes of major effect have been found. The latest evidence suggests that many genes - possibly thousands -- each make a tiny contribution to vulnerability to psychiatric disorder, and that these effects are highly non-specific (the same genes are implicated in patients with different diagnoses). So, no I don't think the mice study is credible."

The mice study he referred to was mentioned by me. Scientists in Georgia manipulated certain genes in mice and created mice with schizophrenia. They were then able to eliminate the schizophrenia symptoms when they returned the gene expression to normal. This was in a peer reviewed academic journal and the research was funded by the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation who he disparaged. That research may be correct or it may not be correct. In the way of science, it will either be replicated or refuted by others and help to advance knowledge. What Intervoice believes or does not believe is inconsequential.

Another Inman critic cited a group of psychiatrists in the U.K who do not believe in schizophrenia as proof that Ms. Inman is off-base. Well, I'm not really surprised. There are some psychiatrists who have views that differ. Cancer researcher Peter H. Duesberg long denied that HIV caused AIDS. Fortunately, scientists looked at the evidence and AIDS has gone from a sure death sentence to a manageable chronic disease with antiviral medications.

And I cannot ignore Dr. Michael C Burgess, an ob/gyn and member of the U.S. Congress. He recently stated in an abortion debate that 15-week-old male fetuses masturbate. Naysayers always exist and, when they can prove their naysaying (as in the cause of ulcers), others will join in.

Scientists have a long way to go to discover a cause and a cure for illnesses like schizophrenia. We cannot afford to ignore any potential theories and all must be examined with an open mind. There is no cure now, but symptoms can be alleviated with proper medication and psycho-social treatments. Focusing on only one theory and treatment modality does everyone a disservice.

I have to wonder now that both the Schizophrenia Society of Canada (SSC) and NAMI know that Intervoice argues that childhood trauma leads to schizophrenia, if they will be so accepting. SSC is planning a full day workshop for Intervoice before their annual conference.

The Intervoice reprentative and blog commenter quoted Kerris Jan Myrick, new president of NAMI, who said about attending the 2012 NAMI Annual Conference:

"The highlight for me was attending the Hearing Voices Network seminar by Ron Coleman, who wowed a room overflowing with NAMI members who embraced his message and the Hearing Voices Network paradigm."

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