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How to be critical of mental health research (and why you should be):

A couple days ago, I rewatched one of my favourite documentaries ever—Inside Job. It unpacks the financial crisis of 2008 and the deep levels of corruption in our politics, businesses, and how that created a veil of lies over our individual decisions. One point that keeps sticking in my mind was how a research article named "Stability in Iceland" (2006) was written by two chief financial lobbyists who got paid 10's or 100's of thousands to write the article—despite Iceland being on it's way to extreme INSTABILITY. You can watch the 2-min clip from the documentary here, where one of the authors hilariously claims to have "had faith" when asked about how they did their research.

Mental health research comes in a variety of forms, and I won't bore you with the details of research analysis. What we need to be critical of is: who would benefit from the outcome of this study, where did the funding come from, and how closely does this relate to MY personal life and circumstances?

UNFORTUNATE TRUTH: The Global Majority (a collective term for people of Indigenous, African, Asian, or Latin American descent, who constitute approximately 85 percent of the world's population), women, LGBTQIA+ folx, disabled folx, and many other populations that may be a better representation of you are often excluded from controlled research trials.

Now, you may be thinking - wellllll Kaitlin, if I can't trust the research, who can I trust? The answer may depend on who you put the most faith in, and your own personal values. Maybe organization and clarity feel really important to you, in which case, results from a randomized controlled trial (RCT) may resonate deeply with you. Maybe you're more comfortable with nuance and unpredictability, so you can listen to anecdotal findings from mental health professionals. Or, maybe you're a fan of logic and deduction, so the best course of action is to take the science you DO know (e.g., the nervous system) and make logical inferences from there.

Unfortunately, when you talk about non-institutional research that hasn't been done in a controlled lab, this tends to be the response (at least with people on the internet):

A very clear example of this is Gabor Mate's proposal (Scattered Minds, 1999) around the origins of ADHD, where he claimed that genetics were not the cause of ADHD, and instead pointed to factors like attachment with parents, high levels of stress early on in development, and the resulting impact this has on the development of the brain. Knowing what we've generally all accepted to be true about ADHD, which is some level of malfunction of dopamine systems and the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, this is a plausible theory! This example is not meant to say that this is right and genetic studies are wrong, but again, points to a bigger line of inquiry we should all have when evaluating medical research.

I could rant for ages about this, but we need to remember that the privatization and individualization of healthcare is much more profitable for the economy. If mental health is an individual syndrome or disorder, then YOU, the individual, have to pay for therapy, medications, treatments, etc. If the majority of research supported the (more likely) cause of poor health from social, economic, and political factors.... well that would put our governments in quite a tough spot, now wouldn't it!

Here are some questions to ask yourself when reading the results of a research study (or when being told about research from a medical professional):

  • Am I adequately represented in this study (e.g., age, gender, health conditions, income, education)? Or is this done mostly on White men...

  • What was the sample size of this study (e.g., how many people were researched)?

  • Where did the funding come from?

  • Do the results of this study feel like they really resonate with me, my learned knowledge, and my lived experience? (e.g., if you've had a horrible experience with meds, but your doctor tells you that research says meds are the best treatment for X issue—is that really the best treatment for YOU?)

On a deeper level, here are some extra spicy questions you can ask that may challenge your belief in the entire medical system (you've been warned):

  • Does it benefit the capitalist interest to state that medications are the best treatment for certain conditions? (Hint: see if med related studies are funded by mass-profit pharmaceutical companies)

  • Does it benefit the capitalist interest to state that disorders are primarily from genetic causes than from social and economic inequities?

  • Does it benefit the capitalist interest to name certain short-term, productivity-focused therapy models (e.g., CBT, SFBT) as the "best treatment" rather than more lengthy and variable methods of therapy?

BIGGEST POINT OF ALL: Never ever should you feel pressured into a line of treatment or course of action that does not feel right for YOU. Period.

Ok thanks for reading byeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee :)

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