It's NOT a Chemical Imbalance

It’s NOT a Chemical Imbalance

An interview with Dr. Kristen Syme on the situational and cultural impacts on depression.  Curt and Katie talk with Dr. Syme about the role anthropology can play in helping to challenge long held assumptions in psychology. We look at conceptualizations for depression and suicidality and how the over focus (in the Western world) on the individual as the agent for mental health and wellness. We talk about how the chemical imbalance model doesn’t hold up as well as better explanations for depression and suicidality.

It’s time to reimagine therapy and what it means to be a therapist. To support you as a whole person and a therapist, your hosts, Curt Widhalm and Katie Vernoy talk about how to approach the role of therapist in the modern age.

Interview with Dr. Kristen Syme Ph.D.

Dr. Kristin Syme is a biocultural anthropologist that investigates the human universals and cultural particularities of human psychology and behavior. Her research program is driven by the core belief that in order to advance our scientific understanding of human mind and behavior, we have to look outside the confines of our culture. What is normal? What is moral? What is healthy? The answers to these questions vary across time and space. Her research focuses on how human sociality can inform our understanding of depression, suicidality, and other mental health and behavioral issues. She uses a diverse set of research methodologies including ethnographic data, comparative cross-cultural analyses, confirmatory hypothesis testing, and exploratory research methods. A key finding from this research program is that social conflict and powerlessness often go hand-in-hand with depression and suicidality.

In this episode we talk about:

  • Syme’s research and how she is working to challenging assumptions
  • The lack of attention on networks and systems and an over-focus on “the self” as an agent for mental health and wellness
  • How psychological pain is signaling us that there are things in our environment that are unhealthy for us
  • Depression and psychological pain are not just within us, but also around us
  • What is wrong with the idea of “chemical imbalance” model
  • Adversity causes depression
  • The problem of saying “there’s a pill for that”
  • The work case for depression research
  • Ethical issues related to medicating away depression or psychological pain
  • How non-western cultures address psychological pain
  • There is “not a direct translation for depression in any other language” – Kristen Syme
  • The internal idea of the imbalance of black bile that leads directly through the ages to the concept of imbalance of serotonin
  • How other cultures talk about depression and situations, with more refined, specific language
  • How our language creates our reality around depression and how broadly we define it
  • How common depression (as broadly defined) is in the modern world
  • The lack of evidence for a “chemical imbalance”
  • How big pharma has impacted the conceptualization of depression
  • The inadequacy of treatment based on this conceptualization
  • Being called a psychopath regarding her framing of suicidality
  • Suicidality is a credible signal of need, but can be framed as black mail
  • The difference between suicidality and suicide death
  • The causes of suicidality: sexual assault, forced marriages, abuse
  • The problem of trivializing “seeking attention”
  • The tendency of coming up with “the theory”
  • Looking at how people might be better served by the mental health system
  • The importance of creativity and novelty in identifying better treatment

Resources mentioned:

We’ve pulled together resources mentioned in this episode and put together some handy-dandy links. Please note that some of the links below may be affiliate links, so if you purchase after clicking below, we may get a little bit of cash in our pockets. We thank you in advance!

Article: Mental health is biological health: Why tackling “diseases of the mind” is an imperative for biological anthropology in the 21st century

Dr. Kristen Syme on Twitter

Dr. Kristen Syme on Google Scholar

Relevant Episodes:

Burnout or Depression

Is Therapy an Opiate of the Masses?

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Who we are:

Curt Widhalm is in private practice in the Los Angeles area. He is the cofounder of the Therapy Reimagined conference, an Adjunct Professor at Pepperdine University and CSUN, a former Subject Matter Expert for the California Board of Behavioral Sciences, former CFO of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, and a loving husband and father. He is 1/2 great person, 1/2 provocateur, and 1/2 geek, in that order. He dabbles in the dark art of making “dad jokes” and usually has a half-empty cup of coffee somewhere nearby. Learn more at:

Katie Vernoy is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, coach, and consultant supporting leaders, visionaries, executives, and helping professionals to create sustainable careers. Katie, with Curt, has developed workshops and a conference, Therapy Reimagined, to support therapists navigating through the modern challenges of this profession. Katie is also Past President of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. In her spare time, Katie is secretly siphoning off Curt’s youthful energy, so that she can take over the world. Learn more at:

A Quick Note:

Our opinions are our own. We are only speaking for ourselves – except when we speak for each other, or over each other. We’re working on it.

Our guests are also only speaking for themselves and have their own opinions. We aren’t trying to take their voice, and no one speaks for us either. Mostly because they don’t want to, but hey.

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Voice Over by DW McCann

Music by Crystal Grooms Mangano

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