Kvaale, E. P., Haslam, N., & Gottdiener, W. H. (2013). The ‘side effects’ of medicalization: A meta-analytic review of how biogenetic explanations affect stigma. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 782-794.
Psychotherapists may wonder how best to explain a psychological problem to their clients and their family members. Will their explanation help to reduce stigma and increase hope? Laypeople, clinicians, and researchers increasingly understand psychological problems in biomedical terms. Further, some anti-stigma campaigns describe mental health problems, including depression, as biological, medical illnesses. Reducing stigma is important to improve uptake of therapy, reduce an internalized sense of defectiveness, and increase hope and self esteem. Some argue that understanding psychological problems as biologically based will combat stigma by reducing blame and punitive treatment. Kvaale and colleagues asked whether there is a cost to medicalization of psychological problems by unwittingly promoting the stereotype that those with a mental illness have a deep seated, fixed, and defining essence. Proponents of medicalization hope that such an approach will reduce blame for a mental illness, and will result in less desire for social distance from the mentally ill. However, medicalization might also result in: an increased belief that those with psychological problems are dangerous; and greater pessimism and hopelessness about the prognosis (i.e., a belief that the problem can not be improved). A meta-analysis by Kvaale and colleagues looked at experimental studies of student and community based samples in which explanations for a psychological problem was manipulated to include biomedical explanations versus psychological explanations or no explanations. The meta-analysis aimed to examine the causal effects of biogenetic explanations for psychological problems on: blame, perceived dangerousness, social distance, and prognostic pessimism. Regarding blame, the authors reviewed 14 studies that included 2326 participants and found that biogenetic explanations were associated with a decreased tendency to blame individuals with psychological problems. Regarding perceived dangerousness, the authors reviewed 10 studies with 1207 participants, and found that biogenetic explanations were associated with an increase in perceiving those with psychological problems as dangerous. However this result is tentative because publication bias may have resulted in an over estimation of the association (see my May 2013 blog on publication bias [“Are the Effects of Psychotherapy for Depression Overestimated?”]). Regarding social distance, the authors reviewed 16 studies with 2692 participants, but found no relationship between biogenetic explanations and reduced social distance. Regarding prognostic pessimism, the authors reviewed 16 studies with 3469 participants, and found that biogenetic explanations were associated with greater pessimism about the prognosis of a psychological problem.
The meta analysis by Kvaale and colleagues found that biomedical explanations for psychological problems typically decrease blame, but increase prognostic pessimism and perceptions of dangerousness, although the latter conclusion is somewhat tentative. The findings lead one to be skeptical of the view that stigma will be reduced by promoting an understanding of psychological problems as biogenetic diseases. Kvaale and colleagues suggest that the affected individual, family members and mental health professionals could be more pessimistic about change because of a biomedical explanation, thus impeding the patient’s recovery process. Psychotherapists should share information about the biogenetic factors of psychological problems. However, this must be done with caution. Kvaale and colleagues conclude that explanations that invoke biomedical factors may reduce blame but also may have unintended side-effects. Biogenetic explanations should not be promoted at the expense of psychosocial explanations, which may have more optimistic implications.
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