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Demystifying the possible “genetic vulnerability to schizophrenia”

People diagnosed with schizophrenia are commonly told that their problem is due to their genes, or to their “genetic vulnerability.”  This is often done as part of an effort to convey the notion that their genes are defective and therefore the person can expect to have a lifelong mental illness, with the best hope being to take drugs for the rest of the person’s life in order to deal with it.  While this viewpoint is often presented as though it is a logical perspective based on evidence, it is actually full of holes and inconsistent with the evidence.

First, while there is evidence suggesting (not fully proving) that such a thing as an increased genetic vulnerability to having “schizophrenia” exists, there is zero evidence demonstrating that such increased vulnerability MUST be present in order to create the problems that get diagnosed as schizophrenia.  In other words, no study has ever shown that there is a genetic subtype of human beings who have zero vulnerability to schizophrenia, regardless of level of trauma, stresss, etc. 

To think about this more clearly, consider another kind of vulnerability with which we are all familiar, that of vulnerability to sunburn.  Clearly, no doctor can know, just based on the fact that patient X has a bad sunburn, that patient X has a genetic vulnerability to having a sunburn.  That’s because all humans, even those with naturally dark skin, have some vulnerability to sunburn if they are out in the sun long enough.

This means that, without doing some kind of genetic test, there is no way to know that any given individual has schizophrenia due to a genetic vulnerability.  The person may have no greater genetic vulnerability than anyone else, but became troubled due to exposure to excessive stress, trauma, confusion, or other factors.  This means that all the mental health workers who are telling their clients that they definitely have some kind of genetic vulnerability, are simply demonstrating their ignorance and lack of curiosity about their client’s stories.

Second, “vulnerability” should not be confused with “inevitability,” though it often is.  Even if a person has a genetic vulnerability, the person might not end up with the mental states that get labeled as “schizophrenia” or the person might not have them forever.  To use the vulnerability to sunburn example again, the person with the vulnerability to sunburn may learn how to protect against it, either avoiding exposure to the sun or using clothing or sunscreen for protection, and with such adaptations, may become less vulnerable to sunburn than the average person.  If a person does have a vulnerability to schizophrenia, that person may learn how to manage the vulnerability so that it has no real impact on the person’s life, and it becomes inconsequential.

Third, a genetic vulnerability to schizophrenia should not be seen as inevitably a genetic “defect.”  In the case of vulnerability to sunburn, it is clear that it is not a defect:  if one lives in a climate far from the equator, it actually helps to have skin that is more sensitive to sunlight, as this helps in Vitamin K production.  Similarly, as genes begin to be found that appear to be associated with slight increases in vulnerability to schizophrenia, it is also being found that they are genes that convey advantages as well as disadvantages.  For example, a gene that improves the brain’s ability to filter information, and can improve intelligence, has also been found to appear to increase risk for schizophrenia:  see http://www.futurepundit.com/archives/004065.html  Another gene that also appears to increase risk for schizophrenia has also been found to increase the likelihood of creativity:  see http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/NEWS-Health-Science-Science-Schizophrenia-gene-determines-persons-creativity/articleshow/4788352.cms

One of the values of the “Mad Pride” movement is that it respects the possibility that differences that get labeled as madness may actually have value, if a person learns to manage them appropriately and if others as well learn to see potential in those differences. 

A great summary of the ridiculousness of the genetic preoccupation of modern psychiatry has just been published in the Guardian.  It is by Richard Bentall, a noted researcher and a remarkably clear thinker and writer.  It is titled “Diagnoses are psychiatry’s star signs. Let’s listen more and drug people less” and is available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/aug/31/psychiatry-psychosis-schizophrenia-drug-treatments

 

1 comment… add one
  • Fourth: If the world was perfect there would be no suffering in it. The question is whether the world isn’t perfect because there’s suffering in it, or whether there’s suffering in the world because it isn’t perfect. The question is whether “schizophrenia” itself is a disadvantage, or whether it actually is an advantage. Or, put in a different way, whether it is an advantage or a disadvantage to be able to react extremely to extreme environmental influences, i.e. to react appropriately.

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