A report out today suggests that, despite years of repeating the mantra “Exercise Helps Depression” it doesn’t. Unless it does: the outcome of the research is that therapy or antidepressants or exercise have the same effect on depression.
This report comes out on the 40th anniversary of an extraordinary psychiatric experiment. Healthy researchers went to several psychiatric hospitals, reported they were hearing voices, were admitted and diagnosed with schizophrenia. The medical staff spent an average of 6 minutes a day with each ‘patient’ and treated them as if they were indeed schizophrenic, while many genuinely unwell patients realized there was something very different about these people, that they were not, in fact, ill. When some researchers took notes this was diagnosed as ‘writing behaviour’ and part of their illness, and it took a surprising amount of persuasion from outside sources to get some of the researchers out of hospital. On being released, every single researcher was diagnosed as being in remission, that is, still ill but not floridly so.
The resulting paper was a bombshell to the psychiatric establishment. One hospital challenged the researchers to repeat the experiment and later reported identifying 41 researchers posing as having schizophrenic symptoms. In fact, none had been sent.
Context is everything. The context in which the depression research is being received is one of cost cutting – now the hard working tax payer can stop paying for pointless gym sessions for depressed people, even if this is not what the research demonstrates. What the research also demonstrates is that when people are given quality human contact over a sustained period, whether that attention was counselling or research-led monitoring of people on antidepressants, or 13 sessions of exercise advice over 8 months, they felt better.
We live in a context that demands simple answers but in care of the mind there are very few of those. Psychiatry, psychology, psychotherapy and counselling have more in common with philosophy than, say, diabetic or bone care. Pancreases and bones tend to do the same things whoever they’re in but the mind and heart are less fixed. That said, we do know that if we expect to hear something we tend to hear it and so it’s no bad thing to question what we believe we know, what the basis’ for our beliefs might be and, essentially, how what we believe we know informs how we live ourselves and how we treat others.
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