Obsolete Etiological Theories

The scientific community has made real progress in its understanding of the etiology of the major mental illnesses. At the same time, the public is still exposed to a number of discredited or obsolete theories about what causes major mental illness. Most of these obsolete theories center on early childhood psychological trauma or abusive family environments as causal factors. Harding and Zahniser (1994) describe the familial role in etiology as one of the great myths about schizophrenia. While a dysfunctional family environment is clearly unpleasant, often stressful, and may be associated with some psychiatric disorders, it apparently is not the primary cause of severe and persistent mental illness.

One discredited theory traced the cause of schizophrenia to "schizophrenegenic" mothers. Supposedly, these mothers caused schizophrenia in their children by giving them mixed messages, for example, simultaneously encouraging independence and engendering unnatural levels of maternal dependence (Lidz, 1992). Empirical research has provided no support for this theory and others that focus on parentally induced intrapsychic conflict, yet some professionals and members of the general public still subscribe to them.

These theories are not only erroneous, they are harmful. Adherents to these theories have blamed family members for the illness of their loved ones. This, in turn, fostered guilt and animosity among family members, making for tense, counterproductive relationships between family members and professionals (Torrey, 2001). This disservice to consumers and their families is also being perpetuated by some educators, who persist in training mental health professionals in these discredited theories, despite the lack of evidence for them (Harding et al., 1992; Lefley, 1989). Many individuals and family members still believe in primarily psychological causes for the illness (Holzinger et al., 2003).

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