Many people now know that there are strong contributing factors in terms of genetics and neurotransmitters when it comes to biological causes of depression and certain other mental disorders. Once these discoveries were made many professionals thought this would help lower the stigma associated with mental illness. We are learning more all the time about how biology can influence mental health.

This may be true to a certain extent, however this increased awareness regarding the biological components contributing to mental disorders caused many to think that if depression is related to problems with the neurotransmitters in the brain, then perhaps the person suffering from it cannot control their depression. But the truth is that prior research revealed that the genetic and biological causes of depression were in fact significantly linked with a pessimistic view on the part of the depressed person regarding their prognosis.

Woo-kyoung Ahn and Lebowitz1 conducted a survey, which was taken online by 454 adults living in the U.S. Half of the participants watched a video discussing research that had been done on the biological components of mental disorders. These people received information on how the genes and biological aspects of the brain causing depression can be changed through somatic treatments as well as non-somatic treatments such as psychotherapy.

The participants who were being educated received specific information on the malleability of the various biological factors contributing to depression, including a specific brief on how genes can actually be turned on and off, all based on real life experiences. They also found out how the chemistry in the brain and brain activity can be adjusted through experiences, which include things like psychotherapy or talk therapy. As an example, when talking about their problems in psychotherapy, people frequently become emotional and may cry. These emotional responses, whether sadness, fear or anger, have biochemical reactions. In this and other ways, psychotherapy and other life experiences change biochemistry.

The participants in the study who saw the video were asked to write a note to a depressed person, using the information they learned in the video in order to convince the person to look at the causes of depression from a different viewpoint. The purpose of this approach was to take advantage of the effect of “saying-is-believing,” meaning that people have a tendency to internalize the point of view they have advocated for. The other half of the participants did not receive any intervention.

For the participants who already barely believed in the biological causes of depression, the intervention didn’t have any effect. But, after seeing the video, the participants who already strongly believed that the biological causes of depression were influenced by biochemistry alone came out feeling more optimistic about being able to cope with their negative moods. They also felt more optimistic regarding the prognosis of their depression, especially after being informed about the other causes of depression, like relationship, family and job stress.

These results held true six weeks after the participants had seen the video. The findings revealed in this research study are important because people with strong beliefs regarding the biological causes of depression are not likely to believe they can be helped through psychotherapy. When someone is pessimistic about his or her prognosis this can contribute to a poorer outcome after treatment. Patients who receive brief interventions teaching them about the benefits of treatment on their own biological makeup may help them be more optimistic and thus more willing to accept depression treatment.

Therapy Meeting

This study revealed that people can change their beliefs about the biological causes of depression and learn that they can impact the outcome of their depression. They can learn that psychotherapy and other experiences can have a positive effect on mood and state of mind. The malleability intervention that was done significantly lowered the patient’s pessimism about the outcome of depression, enhanced the person’s feelings of control, and helped them become more hopeful in general. When patients understood that their brain chemistry could be altered by their experiences, they became more optimistic in their beliefs about depression. Treatment for depression works, often in ways we do not yet understand.

  1. Emphasizing Malleability in the biology of depression: Durable effects on perceived agency and prognostic pessimism. Lebowitz MS, Ahn WK. Behav Res Ther. 71:125-30.

Treatment for depression works!