QUICK LOOK: Mental illness mostly caused by life events not genetics, argue psychologists

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Mental Illness Mostly Caused by Life Events Not Genetics, Argue Psychologists

by Sarah Knapton, The Telegraph science editor (March 28, 2016)

The above article caught my attention. It throws fuel on the “environmental causes” versus “genetic causes” fire that we visited in my last post, a reaction to the book on addiction In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Encounters with Addiction (2008) by Canadian MD Gabor Maté. In my reaction post, I noted that Maté takes a strong stand against genetic explanations of addiction. The above article tends to support Maté’s position. I think the following excerpt from Knapton’s article sums up the “anti-genetic explanations” position:

Peter Kinderman, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Liverpool, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Of course every single action, every emotion I’ve ever had involves the brain, so to have a piece of scientific research telling us that the brain is involved in responding emotionally to events doesn’t really advance our understanding very much.

“And yet it detracts from the fact that when unemployment rates go up in a particular locality you get a measurable number of suicides.

“It detracts from the idea that trauma in childhood is a very very powerful predictor of serious problems like experiencing psychotic events in adult life, so of course the brain is involved and of course genes are involved, but not very much, and an excessive focus on those issues takes us away from these very important social factors.”

I appreciate professor Kinderman’s remarks. However, I think there’s a bigger political or philosophical issue at hand, namely, connectionism. As I have said many times before, Bowlby’s theory of attachment is a connectionist theory, that is to say, it connects early childhood events with present day behavior. Professor Kinderman is arguing from a connectionist perspective. He connects trauma in childhood with psychotic events in adulthood. He even connects unemployment rates with suicide behavior. Typically, connectionism reflects liberal sensibilities. Genetic determinism is, well, deterministic and tends to cover over possible connections like those that professor Kinderman points to. Typically, determinism reflects conservative sensibilities. Allow me to give you a couple of examples.

When I worked as a psychotherapist at a behavioral health RTC (residential treatment center), I was specifically told that we (therapists) are not allowed to look at early childhood experiences as playing any role in present behavior. Behaviorism expresses a non-connectionist philosophy. Non-connectionist theories wish to place causes within individuals. In contrast, connectionist theories wish to place causes within social systems such as family, community, and even country. John Bowlby essentially said that the UK’s WWII evacuation policies would potentially harm children sent to the country (sans parents) to escape bombing raids. Even early in his career Bowlby was a connectionist (and so too others who joined Bowlby such as Donald Winnicott).

Most states use what is known as the Duluth Model as the foundation for their domestic violence (DV) treatment programs. Duluth (for short) specifically prohibits the use of any connectionist theories such as Bowlbian attachment theory, insight theories, or even psychodynamics. [1] Why? Duluth is afraid that if connectionist theories are used to frame interventions, blame could be shifted, even ever so slightly, from the DV perpetrator (who Duluth holds to always be a male) to the DV victim (who Duluth holds to always be a female). By taking such a strong anti-connectionist stand, Duluth wishes to keep our attention away from the fact that DV victims are as likely to be a male as they are to be a female. For more on this point, see the article entitled The number of male domestic abuse victims is shockingly high — so why don’t we hear about them?

So, just a Quick Look to point out that connectionism versus anti-connectionism carries with it important political and philosophical implications. And clearly these implications play themselves out in the intervention arena.


[1] Here’s a quote from the domestic violence treatment standards that New Mexico adopted back in the early 2000s, which are patterned on the Duluth model: “Circular Process, Family Systems Approach, or any approach that uses a systems theory model, which treats the violence as a mutually circular process, or any other model that minimizes the responsibility of the perpetrator and places responsibility for the violence upon the victim is prohibited.” Because Duluth uses a non-connectionist worldview, any examination of the attachment implications of domestic violence behavior is off limits.

Our Foundation supports the research of Syracuse University social work professor Ken Corvo and his efforts to place DV behavior within a Bowlbian attachment theory frame. An example here would be the 2010 article Bowlby’s Ghost: Political and Moral Reverberations of Attachment Theory, which Dr. Corvo co-authored with Dr. Ellen deLara (Attachment—New Directions in Psychotherapy and Relational Psychoanalysis, vol. 4, number 1, p. 59–67). Please contact the Foundation for copies of this article and other articles by Dr. Corvo. As you would expect, such efforts have raised more than an eyebrow among ardent supporters of Duluth. Here’s an example quote from Bowlby’s Ghost that tends to raise the hackles of Duluth supporters: “Bowlby’s genteel socialism places the blame (and responsibility for remedy) for psychopathology and disorders of conduct on the failure of social institutions, not individual shortcomings, whether by choice or otherwise.”