A physicist's mental health struggles

I came across this article about a physicist's struggle with mental health and his dismay at the help he received from professionals. I found myself nodding along with most of it, as, I expect, would lots of people with mental health problems.

In contrast to my rigorous physics experiments, however, what astonishes me is that absolutely no-one has ever taken a single measurement or test on me during my fight against my mental illness. In its place have been interviews, questionnaires, biases and opinions.

Along those lines he goes on to say:

I was therefore greatly disturbed to discover that the nature of my mental-health treatment consisted entirely of generalizations and guesswork. Surely, I thought, neuroscientists would have realized how important it would be to develop technology that can – directly and non-invasively – detect action potentials in the human brain. Such a technique would revolutionize the field overnight.


How can it be that we can land a rover on Mars with a jet-pack, yet do not have a single quantitative measure of any mental illness? The effectiveness of treatments are currently measured by psychiatrists using questionnaires and rating scales, which seem pitifully inadequate.

It's not as if they can't accumulate data. They know brain scans can indicate a lot about depression:

Researchers find that significant differences exist between a depressed brain and a neurotypical brain through functional brain scans. Rather than only focusing on the two regions that appear differently with static images, these functional images show additional variations in the:

  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Anterior cingulate gyrus
  • Amygdala
  • Hippocampus
  • Striatum
  • Thalamus

Helen Mayberg, professor of psychiatry, neurology and radiology at Emory University School of Medicine:

All depressions are not equal and, like different types of cancer, different types of depression will require specific treatments. Using these scans, we may be able to match a patient to the treatment that is most likely to help them, while avoiding treatments unlikely to provide benefit.

But they don't habitually use brain scans for mental health problems. If you have a heart attack, they capture data from the heart via ECGs; if you have cancer they'll perform scans to accumulate data. Mental health is, however, not afforded the same scientific approach. It is, and always has been, a second class citizen as far as health services are concerned.