The newly emergent research into the microbiome provides a useful metaphor for understanding that a cluster of interdependent factors may play a role in individual mental health.
Micro-biome research suggests that not all bodies are alike. Each person has an imprint of colonizing bacteria and other micro-organisms that influence health. Invisible cellular communities in the gut may be responsible for a staggering range of systems. Some researchers have even started to wonder whether or not the microbiome can influence the mind.
While reducing all psychological struggles to biology is inherently problematic, the notion that the biological diversity of what humans ingest can play a significant role in the health of our bodies can provide an interesting model for thinking about mental health.
Mental health practitioners often believe that people share a certain set of characteristics Behaviors that deviate widely from these shared traits become classified as symptoms. Clinicians organize symptom clusters into diagnostic entities. Each diagnosis predicts a form of therapy, or a type of investigation into its underlying dynamics or patterns.
Yet, what if just as each person has a distinct microbiome, each person also has a unique psychobiome – clusters of experience that come from biological predispositions, family experiences, languages and cultural realities, as well as the exigencies of local ecosystems?
That would change our work tremendously. Instead of trained clinicians who know how to map diagnostics concerns onto a range of behaviors, the act of treatment may shift. Therapy might entail an individual analyses of how local ecosystems organize relationships, cultures, and biologies into subsystems that individuals internalize uniquely as psychobiomes.
This would mean that no single treatment can work for all people, even if they share presenting symptoms. Rather people have to be evaluated according to their own unique cultivations of cultural, relational and physiological systems. Different types of treatment will work depending on what the specific organization of an individuals psychobiome.
For instance, in the case of substance abuse not all alcoholics and addicts are alike. Treatments options can’t be one size fits all like Twelve-Steps Program or rehabilitation centers. Andrew Tatarsky and the folks at the Center for Optimal Living are already thinking this way about substance abuse and developing treatments that are tailored to the exact configuration – bodies, relationships and cultures – of an individual’s struggle with drugs and alcohol.
I suspect this approach can be applied across the diagnostic categories, thus dismantling them. This may usher in a new approach to helping people overcome psychological problems. By defining the nature of an individual’s psychobiome a therapist can find ways to help an individual regulate and harmonize all parts of their minds: the bodily, the relational, the familial, the cultural, and the imprint of the local geographic ecology.