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Is Depression a Brain Disorder? Neuroscience in Mental Health Care

Sociological Reflections on the Neurosciences

ISBN: 978-1-84855-880-9, eISBN: 978-1-84855-881-6

Publication date: 17 October 2011


Depressive disorder has been defined by increasingly specific neurophysiological mechanisms and features during the past two decades. At the same time, depression has grown into an epidemic proportion and become a major public health problem. Consequently, the scope of depressive experience and conduct has also widened and the meaning of depression has multiplied and become equivocal. This chapter analyses how this tension is handled in current Western mental health care. The focus of the study is the role of neuroscientific views in mental health reasoning and practice. The empirical case is the mental health discussion in Finland from the late 1980s to the present day. The analysis of the historical change in understandings of depression in Finnish psychiatry and mental health care provides a view of the relevance of neuroscientific models in defining depressive illness and outlining diagnostic and treatment practices. Moreover, the analysis brings forth the relationship of neuroscientific concepts to other ways of defining depression – epidemiology, diagnostic classification, psychodynamic and other psychological theories – within clinical reasoning. A conclusion to be drawn from the analysis of the Finnish case is that neurobiological concepts of depression have only limited influence on the ways in which the disorder is conceived within the practical context of mental health care. It seems that the idea of depression as a multi-factorial disorder remains a good enough conceptual framework for clinical practice. Even the influence of neurosciences on treatment is still somewhat marginal. Within current practices of depression management, it is not the brain that is treated but risks, symptoms, and persons.


Helén, I. (2011), "Is Depression a Brain Disorder? Neuroscience in Mental Health Care", Pickersgill, M. and Van Keulen, I. (Ed.) Sociological Reflections on the Neurosciences (Advances in Medical Sociology, Vol. 13), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 123-152.



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