Media report that the alleged shooter in the recent atrocity in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater quit his role as a neuroscience PhD student last month. It’s too early to make any conclusions, but there are questions. Were university authorities aware he was a troubled student? What kind of help was offered? Did he choose his field partly to find answers for his own problems? Is it relevant that one of his final classes looked at the alleged “biological basis” of a psychiatric disorder?
My heart really does go out to everyone impacted by the nightmarish shootings in a Colorado movie theater this week, especially victims and their loved ones.
Of course, it’s far too early to make any conclusions. But it is never too early to raise questions about how we can prevent future tragedies.
Multiple media sources report that the suspect, James Holmes, was a neuroscience graduate student pursuing his PhD at University of Colorado-Denver. Though he had been called a brilliant student, school authorities said that Holmes prematurely quit his program in June.
Studying “Biological Basis” of a Psychiatric Disorder
CBS news has reported that the month before Holmers quit, “as part of the advanced program in Denver, a James Holmes had been listed as making a presentation in May about Micro DNA Biomarkers in a class named ‘Biological Basis of Psychiatric and Neurological Disorders.'”
Perhaps to most people, the topic of that class may seem seem obscure and non-understandable.
But to those of us seeking to change the mental health system, and to question the harm caused by psychiatric diagnoses, we know that this topic of biology and mental health is a central one in questioning the domination of the mental health field by a narrow ‘medical model’ that mainly focuses on chemical solutions.
Many of us feel so strongly about this, that back in August 2003, I participated with several MindFreedom members in a Fast for Freedom, a hunger strike, challenging the American Psychiatric Association to provide any proof of a biological basis of psychiatric disorders.
We asked, is there even one scientific citation showing a “biological basis” of a mental health problem? Is there even one reliable urine or blood test, brain scan, genetic screening, that can diagnose any known psychiatric disorder?
Of course, we are pro-choice, and an individual may freely believe in and utilize the conventional “medical model” in mental health if they wish. However, we questioned why this particular unproven model should get the lion’s share of resources in the mental health system, and why the medical model can possibly justify forced psychiatric procedures based on this theory?
Where’s the evidence, we asked? Prove it. Our hunger strike led to national media coverage.
Those familiar with the hunger strike know that the APA, in a widely-published dialogue with our MindFreedom Scientific Advisory Board, ultimately agreed that there is no scientific evidence for the biological basis of any psychiatric disorder.
What Was Holmes Studying?
At this time, the information about that class Holmes allegedly took is still online.
By far, almost all of the topics in the particular class were about actual neurological changes related to obviously physical diseases and physical trauma issues, such as Alzheimers, Multiple Sclerosis, and brain injury.
However, at the end of the list of topics, there is one specifically on a psychiatric ‘mental health’ type problem:
“Depression, by Christopher Schneck, M.D.”
One can actually download a PDF of Schneck’s cited article “Neurobiology of Depression” (Neuron, Vol. 34, 13–25, 2002)
Published the year before our hunger strike, the article – based on a federally-funded study – does not provide the evidence our hunger strike was asking for. Instead, despite the misleading title, the author outlines speculation about neurobiology and the diagnosis of depression, ending with an enthusiastic call for future research that will some day, in the future, somehow provide evidence of a neurological basis. In the future.
At the end of this blog entry, you’ll see the extent to which scientists are going to try to find this mythical holy grail, including even bizarre animal torture, paid for by taxpayers.
It’s not too early to raise questions…
- Did Holmes – like many students drawn to psychological topics – get into his field partly to find answers about his own mental and emotional challenges?
- As a student of neuroscience, what did he learn? Was it ‘test tube’ type speculation about mythical ‘biomarkers’ for psychiatric problems? Or was Holmes ever offered information about hopeful non-medical-model approaches at recovery from mental and emotional problems?
- Had he experienced significant mental and emotional problems while in school? Were authorities aware of that? If so, what kind of help was offered during that window of opportunity – conventional psychiatric ‘medical model’ approaches? Or more psychosocial approaches, like counseling, peer support? Or something else?
- In the past few years, some mass murderers such as Cho and Laughner were college students who had broken campus rules and shown extreme mental and emotional problems, attracting the attention of campus authorities. What have we learned from that? We know one main change is that many campuses have far more security, and some have special ‘lists’ of troubled students who are monitored. But what kind of effective, creative help is offered to students, friends and family during that window of opportunity when we discover they are in serious trouble?
- Do teachers about neuroscience discuss the implications of the debate about neurological biomarkers for psychiatric problems? For instance, Allan Frances – a leader in creating psychiatry’s current ‘label bible’ – has warned about an over-emphasis on ‘biomarkers’ in psychiatric labeling.
- What have we learned after so many school shootings, which are often followed by soul searching mutual support (see photo above following Chardon, Ohio shooting)? Why should we wait for a tragedy to build this mutual support? How can we use mutual support and community now to prevent future shootings?
I consider these questions important, partly because I myself was a troubled college student. Five times when I was a student at Harvard in the 1970’s, I ended up in locked psychiatric facilities. Thanks to mental health alternatives, I graduated with honors and got involved in our movement. My story is told elsewhere, but for being troubled in a university setting is a personal issue. I wish university authorities would turn to those who have recovered for insight about what may really help.
So what would a student learn in that neuroscience class?
We don’t know if Holmes did the course work for that “biological basis” class. But if he had read the cited article specifically about psychiatric “biomarkers” he would have come across the odd table at the bottom of this blog entry.
One way these researchers have somehow tried to find a biological basis of psychiatric disorders, is to essentially traumatize and torture animals, and then provide psychiatric drugs to see if this changes their behavior. The twisted theory is that, for instance, if a psychiatric drug allows the animal to be tortured for a longer time without, say, showing “despair,” then maybe there’s a biologically-based solution for our human mental and emotional problems. It is as if researchers are sacrificing animals on an altar of mythical beliefs promoted by the pharmaceutical industry, often using our scarce taxpayer dollars.
If we had read that a mass murderer had recently studied about animal torture on his own, it would be a highly-reported fact.
Well, I wonder if we’ll hear about this… Check out below to what extremes researchers are going to try to find evidence of a “biological basis” of mental health problems, and to find this elusive magical pill to fix the invisible cause of our mental and emotional problems.
One wonders if these researchers are aware that intangibles like empowerment, peer support, nature, etc. all impact our brains, through something called neuroplasticity. With enough support, one would choose not to needlessly torture animals.
The below are excerpts from a table in the above mentioned article referenced in Holmes’ class, which you can download.
Can we imagine what those animals went through in the below studies, and for what? To somehow uphold a dominant model in the mental health system which to this day has not been proven, but which continues to be the “king” of paradigms in mental health care?
Again, it’s far too easy to know what has happened with the alleged shooter.
But can you imagine a young adult searching in a university for answers about personal, deep mental and emotional challenges… And what they are offered is a focus on a mythical biological model, that produces this kind of list, below?
Would a bright student think to himself, “If I end up in the mental health system… I could be the one getting dosed, because that’s apparently what is mainly offered.” That would induce hopelessness, wouldn’t it. Well, those of us who have found some level of recovery know that hope is real… will youth and young adults in trouble find that out?
Table 3. Examples of Animal Models Used in Depression Research
Model Main Features
- Forced swim test: Antidepressants acutely increase the time an animal struggles in a chamber of water; lack of struggling thought to represent a state of despair.
- Tail suspension test: Antidepressants acutely increase the time an animal struggles when suspended by its tail; lack of struggling thought [to] represent a state of despair.
- Learned helplessness: Animals exposed to inescapable footshock take a longer time to escape, or fail to escape entirely, when subsequently exposed to escapable foot shock; antidepressants acutely decrease escape latency and failures.
- Early life stress: Animals separated from their mothers at a young age show some persisting behavioral and HPA axis abnormalities as adults, some of which can be reversed by antidepressant treatments.