One-size-fits all therapies may be the best place to start when treating mental health conditions, according to genetic analyses that link many conditions to a common cause
22 January 2020
THIS year alone, one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health condition. That includes everything from depression and anxiety to schizophrenia and phobias. Meanwhile, surveys suggest that our ability to cope with these issues is getting worse.
The personal costs of all this are huge, as are those to society. And our treatment options are limited: some conditions defy treatment, even proven interventions don’t always work and many people get no treatment at all. At the same time, those who experience one condition often experience others.
But now new research into the possible causes of mental illness offers fresh hope for a better way forward (see “A radical idea suggests mental health conditions have a single cause”). Hundreds of distinct psychiatric conditions are currently recognised by mental health professionals, but new DNA sequencing techniques reveal that many share an underlying genetic link. Of course, experiences and environment also play a big role. But this common factor – or “p factor” as researchers call it – may help explain why some people seem more prone to mental health issues across their lifetimes. As evidence for this link grows – and the medical establishment starts to take it seriously – this understanding brings new opportunities for treatment.
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“This new understanding suggests putting less emphasis on labelling conditions and more on treating symptoms”
That may start with putting less emphasis on labelling conditions and more on treating symptoms. We already know that some interventions can cross diagnostic boundaries: several drugs are effective for a number of conditions, for instance, as are talking therapies.
Some mental health professionals already use a one-size-fits-all version of cognitive behavioural therapy, called the common elements treatment approach, for people with many different conditions. If this new thinking about mental health is right, these kinds of general treatments may actually be the most useful first interventions for most people and conditions. What’s more, this strategy could also increase access to treatment where resources are limited.
Perhaps then, in future, we could devote less time and money to searching for separate treatments and more time to truly helping people.
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