Is Depression a Chemical Imbalance?

(BeWellBuzz) “Chemical imbalance” – There’s a good chance that you have heard this phrase before. But where did this phrase come from? How did it become common knowledge?

Despite the popular notion of depression as a chemical imbalance, many researchers say the science doesn’t back it up. A community of psychiatrists, scientists, experts and professors say that big pharma has been marketing depression, framing it as a biological disease in order to sell drugs, and the experts who’ve publicly endorsed them just happen to be on their payroll.

What I’m presenting here doesn’t negate that you’ve been helped by drugs that boost your serotonin (Zoloft, Prozac) or reduce your norepinephrine production (Lithium). But the fact that there is no proven biological cause for depression means that genetics don’t explain the problem, and drugs can’t solve it.


According to pharma and their hired experts, depression is not caused by life experiences, emotional wounding by abuse or loss, disappointments, stress or heartbreak, but an imbalance of neurotransmitters causing serotonin deficiency, and is cured by increased serotonin. Therefore, you should buy their Selective Seratonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI), such as Zoloft, Celexa, Paxil or Prozac.

David Kaiser, MD and practicing psychiatrist contests this claim, hotly. In his article, Against Biologic Psychiatry Kaiser wrote that patients have “been diagnosed with chemical imbalances despite the fact that no test exists to support such a claim, and that there is no real conception of what a correct chemical balance would look like.”[1] (emphasis mine)

Without any basis for a correct balance, how can someone determine an imbalance? The answer is, they can’t.

That some feel better when taking an SSRI is not proof that a deficiency causes depression. Jonathan Leo, PH.D and Professor of Neuroanatomy at LMU[2] has written extensively on this hushed discrepancy. In one essay Leo compares, “the fact that aspirin cured headaches does not prove that headaches are due to low levels of aspirin in the brain.”[3]

In another essay he cites the findings of Irving Kirsch and colleagues who “used the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to all the studies that the drug companies had submitted to the FDA for the purpose of getting these drugs approved… [They] found that the placebo response[4] was responsible for the majority of the effect. In the case of Prozac, the placebo response duplicated 89% of the drug response.”[5] (see footnote for definition of placebo response)

Although studies showed that the drugs succeeded in increasing serotonin, people weren’t necessarily cured. In fact, some studies showed that people with comparatively low serotonin levels weren’t depressed at all, while others with higher levels still had the blues.

Leo suggests, “If a psychiatrist says you have a shortage of a chemical ask for a blood test and watch the psychiatrist’s reaction. The number of people who believe that science has proven that depressed people have low serotonin is a glorious testament to the power of marketing.”

Big Pharma

Des Spence, MBChB was recently quoted from the BMJ (British Medical Journal), “Mental illness is the drug industry’s golden goose: incurable, common, long term and involving multiple medications. This relation with industry has engrained a therapeutic drug mindset to treat mental illness.” [6]

Spence also wrote that 75% of the people defining and endorsing drug treatments for clinical depression are paid by drug companies. Meanwhile, many of their colleagues in psychiatry and neuroscience are a mixture of flabbergasted, furious and nearly depressed because “during the past decade academic psychiatry sold itself to the pharmaceutical companies. Ghostwritten papers, company written papers, editors refusing to publish articles critical of the ‘science'” have convinced the public of a myth. (LEO)

Says David Kaiser, “Pharmaceutical corporations now contribute heavily to psychiatric research and are increasingly present and a part of psychiatric academic conferences.”

As a case in point, in 2002 the FDA approved Prozac for children. By 2004 the same FDA issued a public warning: “Antidepressants increase the risk of suicidal thinking and behavior (suicidality) in children and adolescents.”[7]

How did this not show up during testing?

The answer is unclear, but it seems likely that there was pressure to get the stuff through. The original approval was “based on two studies…with Graham Emslie as the lead author. The first study was funded by NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health), but the second study was funded by Eli Lilly. Curious readers should know that all eight authors of the second study, including Dr. Emslie, were either paid consultants or employees of Eli Lilly.”[8]

The fact that chemical imbalance is not proven smacks harshly against the reality that advertisements have turned a widely debunked theory into so-called common knowledge. We’ve been diagnosed with a condition that has no medical legitimacy.

If you or anyone that you know is taking antidepressants, please make sure to watch this important video

So what now?

To debunk the chemical imbalance theory doesn’t illegitimate a person’s experience, but quite the reverse. A person’s emotional, psychological pain can’t simply be minimized to mechanics of biology. As Kaiser points out, “medications lessen symptoms, they do not treat mental illness per se…” Slapping a label on your emotional struggle means “the surface is all there is.”

He elaborates, “The errors in logic here are clear. A set of symptoms is given a name such as major depression, which defines it as an illness, which is then treated with a medication, despite the fact that the underlying cause of the symptoms remains completely unknown and essentially untreated… In short, the very meanings of unhappiness are being redefined as illness. In my view, this is a dismaying cultural catastrophe.”[9]

No one mentioned here is petitioning that these drugs be taken off the market. To the contrary, many psychiatrists cautiously prescribe them because they recognize that SSRIs can help “take the edge off,” and that lends itself well to counseling and other therapies.

But in June 2012, Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine Larry Malerba joined the chorus by asking the question, “If depression isn’t a chemical imbalance, then what is it?

The answer is that the causes are as varied as the individuals that experience depression.”[10]

That’s why Kaiser is a strong advocate for listening to a patient’s story and assisting them through therapy. He says, “Diagnosis should play a secondary and small role here…”

Whether you’re into the shrink and a couch motif or not, the evidence suggests that beating depression is going to involve more than a pill. It’ll probably require some new relationships; counseling and mentoring; dealing with past wounds; learning from previous mistakes; making potentially huge (and wonderful) changes; and transforming the way we “do” life. I have seen many people go through very hard times in life, but I can honestly say they have overcome the impossible. They have beaten depression. So will you.


[1] Kaiser David, M.D. (1996) Against Biologic Psychiatry (abridged). Available: Accessed 26 January 2013.

[2] Leo’s university profile available at

[3] Lacasse JR, Leo J (2005) Serotonin and Depression: A Disconnect between the Advertisements and the Scientific Literature. PLoS Med 2(12):e392 Available:

[4] Placebo effect: Also called the placebo response. A remarkable phenomenon in which a placebo – a fake treatment, an inactive substance like sugar, distilled water, or saline solution – can sometimes improve a patient’s condition simply because the person has the expectation that it will be helpful. Expectation plays a potent role in the placebo effect. The more a person believes they are going to benefit from a treatment, the more likely it is that they will experience a benefit. MedicineNet.

[5] Leo, J. (2004). The biology of mental illness. Society, 41(5), 45-53. Available:

[6] Cassels, Caroline (2013) Physicians Go Head to Head in Antidepressant Overuse Debate. Medscape. Jan 22, 2013. Available:

[7] U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) 15 October 2004. Suicidality in Children and Adolescents Being Treated With Antidepressant Medications. Available:

[8] LEO see footnote 4.

[9] KAISER see footnote 1.

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