Marketing and Mental Health: Are Patients' Interests Always Paramount?

In recent years, mental health has gained prominence in culture, the media, and politics. However, although it's now less stigmatized and more visible, is this translating into more support for the people who require psychological care?
Marketing and Mental Health: Are Patients' Interests Always Paramount?
Andrea Pérez

Written and verified by the psychologist Andrea Pérez.

Last update: 12 December, 2022

Decades ago, those who went to a psychologist were automatically labeled as crazy. People who weren’t familiar with the profession thought that only the ‘crazy’ ones could benefit from psychological intervention. In fact, those who went to these specialists were seen as ‘weak, ‘sick’, or ‘lacking willpower or determination’. Hardly surprising then that psychological therapy was carried out in secret, without anyone knowing. Or, that psychological suffering was hidden or swept under the rug so that no one would notice.

Today, the stigma still persists to a degree. That said, it’s become normal to talk about mental health and go to a psychologist at times of emotional pain. This has led to the subject being spoken about from other points of view. For instance, those who’ve lived through suffering tell their stories, professionals speak about their daily practices, and many public figures try to make this important issue visible. Moreover, politicians often emphasize mental health in their speeches and individuals direct their business practices toward this segment.

One of the big problems is that not everyone who talks about mental health aims to promote it. Nor do they even consider the possibility of dealing with it. For this reason, it’s important to be critical when analyzing the discourses that we hear from different quarters. As a matter of fact, we should ask ourselves if they’re really interested in mental health or against it.

patient in therapy
The therapeutic relationship is one of the most effective elements of psychological therapy.

Mental health and therapy as forms of shared humanity

The largest nucleus of the medical profession is aware of the importance of carrying out good practice. Perhaps the most important fight has been the recognition of psychology as a scientific discipline by those who previously attacked it. Professionals and organizations have invested many resources in sourcing the most appropriate techniques for specific problems. They’ve also sought to discover how psychologists should work to offer the best service and how to validate therapeutic work with regard to the rest of the scientific community.

Evidence-based and research-informed professional practice has generated rich debates and controversies on this topic. The influence of the technique, the therapeutic relationship, the professional who teaches it, the model, or the common factors in the therapeutic process have been studied. One of the basic ideas on which there’s agreement is the fact that the efficacy of psychological therapy doesn’t rest so much on the specific model or technique as on the therapeutic relationship.

Of course, without techniques, models, mechanisms, hypotheses, and work methodologies, therapy wouldn’t exist. However, research indicates that it’s the therapeutic relationship that makes psychotherapy effective. It involves two people talking about suffering (focused on one of them in particular) accompanying them, and trying to understand where their pain comes from and how to live with it.

Technology helps but doesn’t always promote mental health

Globally, benzodiazepines (BZDs) and drugs related to benzodiazepines (Z-drugs) are one of the most highly used pharmacological groups, especially in developed countries. This data highlights how the problems of daily life tend to be treated socially and professionally.

Anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, grief, and other unpleasant emotions such as sadness or fear are medicated so that they quickly disappear and the individual can continue to function in their usual context, even if it’s that context that’s generating their symptoms.

However, although some mental health problems do require medication, not every unpleasant emotion or personal problem should be medicated. In fact, this daily psychopathologization is linked more to structural problems and economic interests than the care of our health. Long waiting lists, lack of time to properly serve each patient, quick solutions to complex problems, and a multi-billion industry lie behind this data.

Medicating a normal emotion or response to an abnormal situation can lead to health problems for the individual. This is known as iatrogenesis. It refers to the appearance of harmful health effects derived from a treatment meant to improve it.  Although it seems paradoxical, it’s assumed that a certain level of iatrogenicity is acceptable as long as the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

Taking psychiatric medication isn’t exempt from these harmful effects for the individual. Therefore, it’s important to be aware, as professionals and consumers, that this solution may not only not solve our problem in the long term, but make it worse.

The questioning of certain hypotheses

Most of the investigations have concluded that drugs don’t work on variables such as the locus of control. This is decisive in the recovery from certain clinical disorders.

On the other hand, for many years there’s been talk of the serotonergic hypothesis of depression. It explains depression as a chemical imbalance in which there’s a lack of serotonin in the brain. This has long been the hypothesis that’s been behind the rationale for treating depression with medication.

Research that reviewed 17 studies on this hypothesis demonstrated that antidepressants don’t work as believed. Indeed, the study was unable to find evidence to support the role of serotonin in depression. It was observed that there were no significant differences between the group of people with depression and the control group. It seems the key lies, not so much in having higher levels of neurotransmitters (serotonin) in the brain, but rather in having a brain with greater flexibility and plasticity, This gives it more agile connections that help it orient itself to change.

However, these findings don’t imply the condemnation or renunciation of pharmacological medication for mental health. There are cases in which medication is essential for the individual to improve and psychological treatment has the expected effect. Nevertheless, the findings do support the idea of reinforcing the work of quaternary prevention. This is the prevention that attempts to avoid or mitigate the consequences of iatrogenesis. It’s fundamental and necessary, as is prioritizing non-chemical treatments such as psychotherapy.

Tired woman in bed
To improve mental health, it’s important to prioritize psychological therapies.

Promoting mental health responsibly

The promotion of mental health involves many social agents. There are those who are in continuous contact with people close to them who are suffering. There are patients, informed and critical of the care they receive, professionals, who have to provide quality care, and companies who are dedicated to finding tools to deal with human suffering. That said, there are also other interests that often come into play that interfere with the objective of promoting health. For instance, the institutions that promote or inhibit these wellness spaces and those that manage our economic resources at a macro level. After all, without resources, it’s not possible to provide quality service and attention to society.

There are often campaigns in favor of mental health that, when they have to be materialized in resources or concrete facts, vanish. They’re just empty promises. Promoting and caring for health requires plans, measures, and specific guidelines for action that must go beyond words. Promises without action are just a form of marketing in which what they sell us isn’t necessarily what they advertise.

Undoubtedly, those who are deriving a secondary benefit from mental health will continue to do so via their sales strategies. Therefore, it’s up to the practicing professionals to try and provide a safety net. They must start to demand that other social agents make an effort to join them, and give a voice to all those people who, due to lack of support, can no longer do so.

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The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.