The Social Causes of and Treatments for Schizophrenia

Once thought to be exclusively biologically-based, psychiatric research now looks to social and cultural factors to explain and find treatments for schizophrenia.

| January/February 2013


While schizophrenia is rare everywhere, it is much more common in some settings than in others, and when you look at the differences, it is hard not to draw the conclusion that there is something deeply social at work behind them.

Photo By Eugenia Loli

By the time I met her, Susan was a success story. She was a student at the local community college. She had her own apartment, and she kept it in reasonable shape. She did not drink, at least not much, and she did not use drugs, if you did not count marijuana. She was a big, imposing black woman who defended herself aggressively on the street, but she had not been jailed for years. All this was striking because Susan clearly met criteria for a diagnosis of schizophrenia, the most severe and debilitating of psychiatric disorders. She thought that people listened to her through the heating pipes in her apartment. She heard them muttering mean remarks. Sometimes she thought she was part of a government experiment that was beaming rays on black people, a kind of technological Tuskegee. She felt those rays pressing down so hard on her head that it hurt. Yet she had not been hospitalized since she got her own apartment, even though she took no medication and saw no psychiatrists. That apartment was the most effective antipsychotic she had ever taken.

A Brief History of Causes of and Treatments for Schizophrenia

Twenty years ago, most psychiatrists would have agreed that Susan had a brain disorder for which the only reasonable treatment was medication. They had learned to reject the old psychoanalytic ideas about schizophrenia, and for good reasons. When psychoanalysis dominated American psychiatry, in the mid-20th century, clinicians believed that this terrible illness, with its characteristic combination of hallucinations (usually auditory), delusions, and deterioration in work and social life, arose from the patient’s own emotional conflict. Such patients were unable to reconcile their intense longing for intimacy with their fear of closeness. The science mostly blamed the mother. She was “schizophrenogenic.” She delivered conflicting messages of hope and rejection, and her ambivalence drove her child, unable to know what was real, into the paralyzed world of madness. It became standard practice in American psychiatry to regard the mother as the cause of the child’s psychosis, and standard practice to treat schizophrenia with psychoanalysis to counteract her grim influence. The standard practice often failed.

The 1980s saw a revolution in psychiatric science, and it brought enormous excitement about what the new biomedical approach to serious psychiatric illness could offer to patients like Susan. To signal how much psychiatry had changed since its tweedy psychoanalytic days, the National Institute of Mental Health designated the 1990s as the “decade of the brain.” Psychoanalysis and even psychotherapy were said to be on their way out. Psychiatry would focus on real disease, and psychiatric researchers would pinpoint the biochemical causes of illness and neatly design drugs to target them.

Schizophrenia became a poster child for the new approach, for it was the illness the psychoanalysis of the previous era had most spectacularly failed to cure. Psychiatrists came to see the assignment of blame to the schizophrenogenic mother as an unforgivable sin. Such mothers, they realized, had not only been forced to struggle with losing a child to madness, but with the self-denigration and doubt that came from being told that they had caused the misery in the first place. The pain of this mistake still reverberates through the profession. In psychiatry it is now considered not only incorrect but morally wrong to see the parents as responsible for their child’s illness.

It is now clear that the simple biomedical approach to serious psychiatric illnesses has failed in turn. At least, the bold dream that these maladies would be understood as brain disorders with clearly identifiable genetic causes and clear, targeted pharmacological interventions (what some researchers call the bio-bio-bio model, for brain lesion, genetic cause, and pharmacological cure) has faded into the mist.

Schizophrenia now appears to be a complex outcome of many unrelated causes—the genes you inherit, but also whether your mother fell ill during her pregnancy, whether you got beaten up as a child or were stressed as an adolescent, even how much sun your skin has seen. It’s not just about the brain. It’s not just about genes. In fact, schizophrenia looks more and more like diabetes. A messy array of risk factors predisposes someone to develop diabetes: smoking, being overweight, collecting fat around the middle rather than on the hips, high blood pressure, and yes, family history. These risk factors are not intrinsically linked. Some of them have something to do with genes, but most do not. They hang together so loosely that physicians now speak of a metabolic “syndrome,” something far looser and vaguer than an “illness,” let alone a “disease.” Psychiatric researchers increasingly think about schizophrenia in similar terms.