The 89th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2020)

Mental Health is Biological Health; why tackling 'diseases of the mind' is an imperative for biological anthropology in the 21st century


Anthropology, Washington State University

April 16, 2020 36, Platinum Ballroom Add to calendar

During the 20th century, biomedicine rapidly reduced the global burden of infectious disease. In the 21st century, non-infectious diseases, including mental disorders, are responsible for most of the disease burden. The causes of mental disorders, however, are mysterious, and many pharmacological treatments have only moderate to weak efficacy, lack precision in targeting biological systems that underlie symptoms, and/or induce debilitating side effects. Critics from within psychiatry are calling attention to the failure of psychiatric research to improve public health and to rampant conflicts of interest that bias the research. There is an urgent need for a broader, more integrative approach to the study and treatment of mental disorders that incorporates cross-cultural data and evolutionary theory.

Anthropology, especially biological anthropology, can offer critical theoretical and empirical insights to combat mental illness globally. Biological anthropologists are unique in that we take a panhuman approach to human health and behavior and are trained to address each of Tinbergen’s four levels of analysis as well as culture.

Using Brainstorm data, we present a provisional schema for conceptualizing mental disorders based on population prevalence, heritability, age of onset, and evidence for dysfunction. Highly heritable and rare conditions, such as schizophrenia, are likely the product of mutational load; common conditions with low heritability, such as anxiety and depression, are likely adaptive defenses; conditions of old age are likely best explained by evolutionary theories of senescence.

This presentation corresponds to a paper currently in revision for the 2019 Yearbook of Physical Anthropology.