Why This Viral Meme About Brain Chemistry Is Dangerous And WRONG

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
LEFT: Instagram; RIGHT: MatiasEnElMundo/Getty

I have bipolar II disorder. That means, according to scientists, that my neurotransmitters do not work correctly. Specifically, according to Mental Help’s essay on Neurochemistry and Endocrinology in Bipolar Disorder, “dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, GABA (gamma-aminobutyrate), glutamate, and acetylcholine,” along with gabapeptides, “are in some way unbalanced in the bipolar brain compared to a normal brain.”

While studies remain inconclusive, reports indicate that, “Whether the presence, absence, or change in these chemicals is a cause or outcome of bipolar disorder remains to be determined … the importance of neurochemicals in creating bipolar disease is indisputable.”

In other words, mental health is a function of brain chemistry.

Basically, my brain does not work in a typical way. Period. The same goes for depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. Our brain chemistry functions differently than the brain chemistry of so-called “normal” people. This is why medications, particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs, like Prozac and Zoloft) work to improve mood. It’s the same as if our body didn’t produce enough insulin, like a diabetic, or our cholesterol was too high. We don’t claim that these conditions are all in people’s heads or related to their unresolved issues. We don’t wrap them in shame and tell people to get their shit together and fix themselves.

So why are people latching on to this dangerous viral meme that tells them mental health issues are not legitmate? “If you are depressed and anxious, it’s not that your brain is flawed,” it reads. “You’re not living from the soul and/or have unhealed conflicts causing inner conflicts. Chemical imbalances do not exist.”

This meme comes from the Instagram of Suzanne Heyn, a “spiritual mentor and blogger inspiring crazy dreamers to embrace their quirks and follow their hearts.” Whatever that means. She says she wants to help people make their “wild, illogical dreams come true” and help people “learn to love your crazy.” This is followed by an exhortation to download her meditation, plus links above to take her online courses, join her online community, and read her blog.

She’s trying to make money off shaming the mentally ill, and that is dangerous.

If, instead of a chemical imbalance in my brain, I have “unresolved inner conflicts,” whose fault is that? Answer: mine. I am therefore to blame for my own mental illness. While I know better than to believe this bullshit, many people don’t.

Mental illness is still heavily stigmatized in our society. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), 43.8 million adult Americans experience a mental illness in any given year. Only 40% of them received treatment. According to Public Stigma of Mental Illness in the United States: A Systemic Literature Review, published by Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services, people view the mentally ill as dangerous to others and themselves, think they should be blamed and punished for their behavior, and believe they are less competent to make decisions about finances and their own treatment. The mentally ill are stigmatized, period. Statements like the one Suzanne Heyn makes only serve to increase that sense of stigmatism and shame.

Because if I have unresolved inner conflicts, I should be able to just get over them, right? So should my sons, who have ADHD (what inner conflicts an untraumatized 7-year-old could suffer I’m not sure, but we’ll roll with it). If I can’t get over them, I’m not trying hard enough. All of us who are mentally ill, we’re just not trying hard enough. If we just tried hard, we could kick this anxiety thing, this depression bullshit, this bipolar deal. Hell, maybe we could even beat that schizophrenia. Maybe fight our way out of catatonia.

See how stupid this is starting to sound? That’s because it IS stupid. And problematic.

Mental illness comes with enough stigma. We don’t need self-styled gurus flitting around making memes about how chemical imbalances don’t actually exist, how mental illness is all in our heads and a result of our inner soul conflicts. Sit the fuck down, Suzanne. I’ve sure got an inner conflict right now. And it’s about how much profanity I should use when telling you to stop promoting bullshit like this.

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