Learn why biology is not destiny.

Thursday, June 01, 2006


How People Are Being Influenced by Biodeterminism

When I was visiting some of the mental health facilities in San Diego while searching for an internship, I sat in on several interviews with people who were being diagnosed and "treated." One morning, there was a woman who had been to a local emergency room. She was desperate (but not suicidal), very emotionally upset, homeless, had a "history" of mental illness, and after a "psych-evaluation" at the hospital was referred to the facility I happened to be visiting that day. Knowing that I was a graduate student, the interviewer told me that he tries to show the people who come into the facility empathy and understanding. He began asking the woman in a soft-hearted voice what happened, and she explained that she checked herself into the emergency room because she was living with a friend who threw her out and had nowhere else to go. She told us how she had gotten married at a young age to a guy that she was in love with, and they had two children together. However, not uncommon with people who get married in this country, something went wrong. One day, her husband told her two things: First, he didn't want to be married to her anymore because he had met somebody that he "really" fell in love with. Then, he told her that he was taking the children with him. The woman really didn't know what to do at that point because she was unemployed. The guy threatened to go to child care services at the time if she tried to stop him from taking the kids. They hadn't bought a house together, and she had nowhere to go. She tried to move back in with her mother for a while, but the mother was not very supportive of her daughter's emotional response to the events. Meanwhile, her former husband was telling the kids and his new wife that she was a nut-job and to stay away from her. Her mother said to just get over it and move on. Of course, she missed seeing her children, but didn't have the resources to go through the legal battles. When this had gone on long enough the mother convinced her daughter to see a psychiatrist, and he told her she had bipolar disorder. He put her on medication. As time passed the woman didn't improve very much, nor did her circumstances, and eventually the mother couldn't take it and didn't want anything to do with her. She went through programs in other facilities, sometimes living in residences that were connected to mental health centers, and it was basically like being on a roller coaster. She couldn't hold back the tears at times in the interview (and I certainly don't understand why she would have). I distinctly remember her saying that nobody has ever really been able to help her get over having been treated so terribly by somebody that she truly loved.

The interviewer told her not to worry and that they were going to give her the help she needs. He then began a more structured interview related to the diagnosis that was written on the records from the hospital emergency room, which of course was bipolar disorder because she was asked at the hospital if she had a "history" of mental illness. He asked about "mood swings" and whether she seemed to have "ups and downs" in her mood and did they seem to create a problem for her. She agreed. He told her to go to another area of the facility to complete the paperwork needed to become a resident.
When she left I talked a bit with the interviewer and I told him how I can't believe the kind of lives some people have. It really sounded as if the guy she loved might have been a genuine jerk. What did my compatriot say? I still can't believe it. This is what he basically said:
Some guys don't know how to live with people who are mentally ill, especially in a case that involves bipolar disorder. They can't take the "ups and downs" because it interferes with the marriage and raising the kids and all. She probably stopped taking her prescription, but we'll fix that. "She needs to take her meds."

It's a good thing that was the last facility I was visiting for the semester because I had really had enough. Where was this great "empathy" he was telling me about? The woman sat there telling us about all the causes of the psychological distress in her life, but her life's circumstances that existed had been medicalized down to a problem with unstable chemical imbalances in her brain. Did anything this woman said to the interviewer really register with him? Maybe he had enough “expertise” to know that the events in the woman's life created obvious psychological distress, but now the woman's condition was no longer about psychological distress. It had turned into a brain disease. However, if he could have stepped out of the convention of the bio-medical model for a second, he might have been able to see that he was blaming the victim. But no, the influence of biodeterminism had already become too strongly embedded within his schema and subsequent appraisal of reality.

This is only one example of how students, professionals, and the public are being swooned by a way of life encouraging the idea that biology is destiny.

More to come...


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