Misleading Information on Depression Hampers Understanding

Summary: A new study reveals that misleading information about depression is widespread, making it harder for people to grasp the causes of their distress. The study criticizes the circular reasoning used in psychiatric diagnoses, noting that depression is often incorrectly presented as a disorder that causes symptoms rather than a description of them.

This misrepresentation is perpetuated by leading health organizations. Researchers urge for clearer communication to help people better understand their mental health.

Key Facts:

  1. Psychiatric diagnoses like depression are descriptive, not causative.
  2. Leading health organizations often misrepresent depression as a causative disorder.
  3. Clear communication about mental health conditions can improve understanding.

Source: University of Turku

A recent Finnish study shows that people are commonly given misleading information about depression. According to the researchers, the inaccurate information makes it harder for people to understand the causes of their distress.

Most psychiatric diagnoses are purely descriptive. For example, a diagnosis of depression is only a description of the various psychological symptoms – not the cause. Yet depression is often talked about as a disorder that causes low mood and other symptoms.

This shows a depressed woman.
None of the organisations presented the diagnosis as a pure description of symptoms, as would have been accurate. Credit: Neuroscience News

Researchers describe this as a form of circular reasoning, which means that psychiatric diagnoses are frequently talked about circularly, as if they described the causes for symptoms. This makes it difficult for people to understand their distress.

“Depression should be considered as a diagnosis similar to a headache. Both are medical diagnoses, but neither explains what causes the symptoms. Like a headache, depression is a description of a problem that can have many different causes.

“A diagnosis of depression does not explain the cause of depressed mood any more than a diagnosis of headaches explains the cause of pain in the head,” says Jani Kajanoja, a postdoctoral researcher and a medical doctor specialising in psychiatry at the University of Turku in Finland.

This misconception is also perpetuated by mental health professionals, shows a recent study by the University of Turku and the University of the Arts Helsinki.

In the study, the researchers analysed publicly available information on depression provided by leading international health organisations. The researchers selected the websites of English-language organisations whose information on depression was the most influential according to search engine results.

The organisations included the World Health Organisation (WHO), the American Psychiatric Association (APA), National Health Service (NHS) in the UK, and Harvard and Johns Hopkins Universities, among others.

Most organisations portrayed depression on their website as a disorder that causes symptoms and/or explains what causes the symptoms, although this is not the case. None of the organisations presented the diagnosis as a pure description of symptoms, as would have been accurate.

“Presenting depression as a uniform disorder that causes depressive symptoms is circular reasoning that blurs our understanding of the nature of mental health problems and makes it harder for people to understand their distress,” says Kajanoja.

The researchers suggest that the problem may be caused by a cognitive bias.

“People seem to have a tendency to think that a diagnosis is an explanation even when it is not. It is important for professionals not to reinforce this misconception with their communication, and instead help people to understand their condition,” says Professor and Neuropsychologist Jussi Valtonen from the University of the Arts Helsinki.

About this depression research news

Author: Tuomas Koivula
Source: University of Turku
Contact: Tuomas Koivula – University of Turku
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
A Descriptive Diagnosis or a Causal Explanation? Accuracy of Depictions of Depression on Authoritative Health Organization Websites” by Jani Kajanoja et al. Psychopathology


A Descriptive Diagnosis or a Causal Explanation? Accuracy of Depictions of Depression on Authoritative Health Organization Websites

Introduction: Psychiatric diagnoses are descriptive in nature, but the lay public commonly misconceives them as causal explanations. It is not known whether this logical error, a form of circular reasoning, can sometimes be mistakenly reinforced by health authorities themselves.

In this study, we investigated the prevalence of misleading causal descriptions of depression in the information provided by authoritative mental health organizations on widely accessed internet sites. 

Methods: We searched for popular websites managed by leading mental health organizations and conducted a content analysis to evaluate whether they presented depression accurately as a description of symptoms, or inaccurately as a causal explanation. 

Results: Most websites used language that inaccurately described depression as a causal explanation to depressive symptoms. 

Conclusion: Leading professional medical and psychiatric organizations commonly confound depression, a descriptive diagnostic label, with a causal explanation on their most prominently accessed informational websites. We argue that the scientifically inaccurate causal language in depictions of psychiatric diagnoses is potentially harmful because it leads the public to misunderstand the nature of mental health problems.

Mental health authorities providing psychoeducation should clearly state that psychiatric diagnoses are purely descriptive to avoid misleading the public.

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