By Dr David Laing Dawson
I am not shocked that we passed through a phase in our evolving civilization when we seriously considered Eugenics. Until we understood a little about genes and inherited traits, every serious abnormality must have been considered an accident or an act of God, perhaps a punishment for some immoral thought or deed. Certainly a stigma and something for a family to hide, if it could. And, at the time, the tribe or village would feel no collective responsibility to look after the impaired child, the disabled adult. This infant and child would be a burden on the family alone until she died, usually very young.
But coinciding with a time our tribes, our villages, our city-states, and then our countries developed a social conscience, a new social contract, and accepted the collective burden to care for these disabled members, we began to learn of their genetic origins. It would be entirely logical to then consider the possibility of prevention.
When medicine discovers a good thing, it always takes it too far, and then pulls back. When men and institutions have power we always, or some of us at least, abuse it, until we put in some safeguards. And there is always at least one psychopathic charismatic leader lurking nearby willing to bend both science and pseudo science to his own purposes.
But we have, here in the western world, passed through those phases (and hope to not repeat them). Now every year we find genetics is more complicated, that there are more factors involved. And every year we pinpoint at least one more detectable genetic arrangement (combinations, additions, deletions, modifiers, absences) that cause specific and serious abnormalities.
But here is where we are now medically and socially in the Western World: We can test the parents’ genetic makeup, we can test the amniotic fluid, if indicated we can test the fetal cells, we can offer parents a choice to abort or not; we can tell them of projected difficulties, available treatment or lack thereof, likely outcome, and possible future improvements in treatment and cure. We have also socially evolved sufficiently (and are rich enough) for the state to assume some, or, if necessary, all of the burden of care.
That is where we are, notwithstanding the difficulties of providing this care, and the antiabortion crowd: Some genetic certainties, some intrauterine tests, some blood tests for carriers, some absolute and some statistical predictions, and parental choice.
Now we come to genetics and mental illness. We have no certainties; we have some statistics; we have no intrauterine tests, no blood tests, and we have parental choice.
For science to not continue to pursue a genetic line of inquiry for serious mental illness would be a travesty.
Nature/Nurture. I think I entered psychiatry at the height of this academic debate. On one hand the psychoanalysts dominated US psychiatry, while biological psychiatry (Kraepelian psychiatry) dominated British psychiatry. (R.D. Laing was an outlier). Meanwhile psychology figured if you could train a dog to salivate at a bell you could train any kid to do anything. At the same time many poets, essayists, and not a few Marxist sociologists were telling us that the insane were not insane. It was the world around them that was insane. From Biological Determinism to parental cause to the Tabula Rasa and back to Social Determinism.
Other psychiatrists worked hard to find a way of including all possible factors: the bio/psycho/social model. (Which I would like to see redefined as the bio/socio/psychological model, for it is clear to me that our behaviors are driven first by our biology, secondly by our social nature, by social imperatives, and thirdly by our actual psychology, our cognitive processes. (Just watch Donald Trump)
How much of our nature is determined genetically, or epigenetically in the womb, and how much by our experiences as infants and children and teens and adults? When it comes to human behavior it is clearly all of the above, to different degrees and proportions.
The studies show that the risk of developing schizophrenia is 50% if your identical twin has schizophrenia, whether raised together or apart. This was often touted to show that 50% of the causative factors for schizophrenia must be environmental. But we now know that identical twins are not really genetically identical. And the interplay of genes, genome, brain development and environment is time sensitive. (Despite her fluent English my wife still stumbles on some English sounds. They were just not the sounds her brain was hearing at age 3.)
On the other hand identical twins reared apart are later found to have developed surprisingly similar traits, speech patterns, skills, and interests. And on every visit with my daughter in Australia she complains about the knees I bequeathed her.
As I mentioned before, genetics gets more complicated the more we are able to study it. Some DNA sequences seem to predict a mental illness in adolescence or adulthood but not the exact one.
Of course that finding may reflect not so much on environmental influences as on the vagaries of our definitions, our current diagnostic system.
An old colleague once remarked that our criteria for the diagnosis of schizophrenia are at the stage of the diagnosis of Dropsy in about 1880. I think he exaggerated. They are closer today to a diagnosis of Pneumonia in 1940. (Note that we can now distinguish a pneumonia that is bacterial caused, from viral, or autoimmune, or inhalational, and which bacteria, but our antibiotics help only one form of pneumonia, and each of these forms of pneumonia may have one of numerous underlying problems (biological and social) causing the vulnerability to developing pneumonia.)
For mental illness the development of drugs (1960’s on) that actually work much of the time threw a monkey wrench into this ongoing debate and inquiry. It tipped the balance to biological thinking for many of us. But it is a logical fallacy to assume a treatment that works reveals the original cause. The treatment is disrupting the chain of pathogenesis at some point but not necessarily at the origin of the chain.
We will continue to argue nature/nurture, and science will continue to investigate. And doctors will continue to treat with the best tools they have available.
If Dr. Berezin is correct (which he is not) and serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia, manic depressive illness, autism, and debilitating depression, OCD, and anxiety are all caused by “trauma”, much hope is lost and we will not find good treatments and cures for centuries. For today, despite what Donald Trump and Fox News tell us, in our childhoods in Europe and North America we experience far less trauma, strife, deprivation and loss than every generation before us. Yet mental illness persists in surprisingly persistent numbers.
Dr. Berezin is taking a leaf from the Donald J Trump book. He is trying to frighten you with images of violence, abuse, regression, lawlessness for his own purposes. He is waving Eugenics and Hitler at you in much the same way Donald conjures images of rapists, criminals, illegals, and terrorists streaming across the American border.
But lets get real:
Serious mental illness (schizophrenia, manic depressive illness, debilitating anxiety and OCD, true medical, clinical depression) are little helped with non-pharmacological treatments alone. The reason we do not see today, mute and stuporous men and women lying in hospital beds refusing to eat and wasting away is because we have the pharmacological means (and ECT) to treat depression. The reason we do not have four Queen Victorias and six Christs residing in every hospital is because we now have drugs that control Psychotic Illness. The reason we don’t see thin elated starving naked men standing on hills screaming at the moon until they die of exhaustion is because we now have drugs that control mania. The reason we don’t have as many eccentrics living in squalor collecting their own finger nail clippings and urine is because we now have very effective pharmacology to treat serious OCD.
All of these people also need social help and someone in their corner, but without the actual pharmacological treatment it will get us nowhere.
(Though, I must admit, today, you may be able to see untreated catatonia, untreated stuporous and agitated depression, untreated mania and untreated schizophrenia in some of our correctional facilities).
But lets look at the less serious mental problems as well for a minute. A patient tells me she is afraid of flying, and always avoided it. But her father is dying in another province and she needs to fly there to see him one last time. She is terrified of getting on that plane. She imagines having a panic attack and disrupting the flight.
A fear of flying. A phobia of flying. Those of us who have such a phobia can usually manage by avoiding travel by plane.
But my patient. She needs to make this trip. Now perhaps I should send her to a trauma therapist who might uncover the fact a school friend was lost over Lockerbie and have her grieve about this, and still be afraid of flying; or perhaps to a cognitive behavioural therapist who might try to convince her that her fears are unfounded, pointing out how air travel is safer than car travel; or perhaps a desensitization approach in which the counselor uses relaxation techniques and has her imagine being at the airport, boarding the plane, and perhaps accompanying her to the airport on the day of travel; or perhaps I should find out if the fear is based on sitting so close to 300 strangers for 5 hours, or riding in a 20 ton contraption at the speed of sound two miles in the air; or spending 5 hours locked in a cigar shaped coffin with 300 strangers…..
Or I might simply prescribe for her five dollars worth of Lorazepam and offer a few encouraging words to get her through the trip.
Then lets look at something in between, like ADHD, one of the diagnoses mentioned by Dr. Berezin.
It is not a difficult equation for me. The child can’t sit still in class, he is too easily distracted, lacks focus, can’t concentrate, always being reprimanded by the teacher, socially ostracized because he intrudes, he pokes, he speaks out of turn, he angers too easily.
To become a successful adult he needs to succeed in at least one thing, if not more than one thing, in his childhood. If, with accommodation at school, and some parental strategies, some adaptational strategies, such as being allowed to wear earphones and take an exercise break every 20 minutes, have one-on-one instruction, good diet, better sleep – if these work, then he may not need medication.
If they don’t work it means he will fail socially and academically and maybe at home as well. He will be in trouble all the time. He will become surly, or give up, or become more aggressive, or depressed. In his teens he will self-medicate.
If the difference between a child failing or succeeding socially and academically is a single pill taken with breakfast it would be, to use that word again, a travesty to not prescribe that pill. And that is true whether the ultimate or necessary causative factor is inherited or acquired, or some complex combination of biological vulnerability, epigenetics, infantile and toddler experience, parenting styles, pedagogic methods, diet, and video game addiction.