I am a uniquely situated person. I am a biochemistry major with a sociology minor. At this point in time it puts me in both an introductory sociology class and my upper level chemistry course about the chemistry of the brain. This put me in an interesting position while discussing mental illness in sociology. The idea that mental health is dependent on how you were raised and what experiences you have is a problematic idea. Now that is not to say that how you were raised and your experiences do not shape mental illness but to say that you have your mental illness because of how you were raised is not okay. Take for example schizophrenia.
Schizophrenia is a mental disorder where individuals experience hallucinations or paranoia. These hallucinations can be seeing things that are not there, hearing things, and smelling things that are not there. Paranoia can be thinking that someone is trying to kill you or delusions of grandeur. One of the good examples of schizophrenia in the media is the movie “A Beautiful Mind”. The movie is about the journey of a very famous mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. and how he experienced schizophrenia. One of the most saddening moments of the movie is when he is walking through the crowded campus yelling at his hallucinations. One of the greatest struggles with being diagnosed with schizophrenia is that patients then have to understand and accept that they way they see the world is not real.
The reality of schizophrenia is it is not very common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health only approximately 1.1% of people in the United States have the disease. However that can range from mild to very severe cases. This can be a very hard thing for patients and their families to deal with. That is one of the reasons that looking at schizophrenia as if it is caused by how a person was raised is really problematic. Not only do individuals have to deal with the disease and all that is involved but then it is also their fault that they have it in the first place.
THIS IS NOT TRUE.
Schizophrenia is caused by chemistry in the brain. In particular neuroscience suggest that it is due to imbalances in the Wnt pathway. Pathways are what we call the rout that signals take from the outside of the cell to other parts of the cell. It is similar to a game of telephone. A receptor on the outside of the cell gets a signal it then tells a signaling molecule who tells another signaling molecule and the signal is sent to where it needs to go, in this case the nucleus. In the Wnt pathway, Wnt is the receptor that starts this molecular game of telephone. Now it should be said that molecules are specifically better at telephone than most human beings so there are more options for what the end of the telephone game will be. In the one pathway signals can be sent to the nucleus where genes are expressed or it can directly effect other parts of the cell. Also molecules are good at stopping pathways after the signal is sent to there is not too much information happening at once.
One of the biggest players in the Wnt pathway is GSK. GSK helps to send the molecule beta-catenin in to the nucleus to express genes that are necessary for the cell. What is proposed in schizophrenia is that GSK does this job to well and there is too much beta-catenin entering the nucleus. The extra beta-catenin causes over expression of memory genes and may cause the formation of signals that are not really there.
Schizophrenia is still not fully known and so more research should be done to understand how this pathway can be regulated but one thing is certain. It is not an individuals fault if they have schizophrenia and the best thing we can do for them is to help them understand that and make it easier to seek out treatment.