The 'Higgs particle' of Mental Health


On July 4, in a long-awaited announcement, the world of physics welcomed a new particle to the world of reality. Long theorized, the “Higgs particle” was identified in experiments that involved thousands of scientists from dozens of countries, lasted several decades and cost many billions of dollars.

The Higgs particle is required by the “Standard Model” of physics, as it provides all other particles with their mass. Without it, the Standard Model predicts that there would be no stars, no planets, no people. So confirming its existence was imperative in a fuller scientific understanding of the world.

Is there a Higgs of mental health?

The Higgs took so long to identify because little was known about what it looks like, or where it might be found. This meant that the experimentalists seeking it had to operate by trial and error, employing a very painstaking set of procedures, and using the highest technology yet developed by humans.

So, like the Higgs, it is sometimes easier to start with what mental health is not.

Mental health is not the absence of hallucinations or delusions.

Mental health is not the absence of mood swings.

Mental health is not the absence of anxiety.

Mental health is not something given to patients by doctors or therapists. It is certainly not provided by incarceration or other restraints.

Mental health is a situation in which people accommodate to their strengths and weaknesses, are able to have success in their world, are able to work and support themselves and their families, are able to find time for love and for play, are able to follow the social rules and norms of their societies while effecting positive changes where needed without fear of reprisal.

Mental health is contextual.

For me, the “Standard Model” of mental health is a world in which people are not penalized for their illnesses but rather have an array of tools from which to choose and which they can use to become mentally healthy.

Like the physicists, we may not know exactly what those tools look like, but we have several paths to tread which are getting us closer to finding them:

  • Molecular and pharmaceutical research: Every day, scientists including chemists, pharmacologists, biochemists, and geneticists collaborate to try to elucidate the biochemical mechanisms that produce mental illness, with the goal of developing interventions at the molecular level that may reduce the burden of illness. We are not there yet, but with proper funding and attention, I have no doubt that these efforts will yield fruit eventually.
  • Psychotherapies: Numerous approaches to therapy have benefitted legions of people suffering with mental illnesses. These approaches include cognitive behavior therapy, interpersonal therapies, family psycho-educational approaches, and many others. In addition to providing patients with new approaches to their lives and relationships, research suggests that psychotherapy can produce changes in the brain's function at a molecular level.
  • Rehabilitation: Through a variety of rehabilitative approaches, such as cognitive remediation, supported employment, and sensory modulation, individuals who suffer with even the most severe illnesses such as schizophrenia can become more and more functional over time.

These are just a few of the many different approaches toward helping people become mentally healthy.

To meet the needs of our growing population – a large proportion of whom will suffer mental illness at some point in their lives – we have to recognize the importance of basic research, which may not have immediately identifiable applications.

Many of the innovations we now take for granted began as a disconnected “neat idea” in a scientist's mind somewhere, without any regard for or inkling of the application to which it would be put to good use later on. Thus, for example, in physics, quantum theory began as an effort to explain phenomena at the subatomic level, which would appear to have little to do with our everyday reality of, say, why a fly ball will eventually land somewhere – in the outfielder's mitt or over the fence for a home run.

But without this “weird science” (as Einstein called it), we would not have transistors, lasers or computers.

Basic research in mental health has led to the marvelous pharmaceutical approaches we have – certainly not perfect, but far preferable to a world without them. Basic research in how the mind works has led to some blind alleys – psychoanalysis for severe psychosis – but also to some amazing successes – cognitive therapy for depression, anxiety, and, yes, psychosis.

Understanding the basics of how humans respond to their sensory experiences has led to great advances in the rehabilitation of serious mental illnesses as well as developmental disabilities such as autism.

Finding the Higgs at this point is basic research. Undoubtedly, this finding will increase our understanding of our world and will eventually find applications that will benefit us all.

But for the moment, it is worth recognizing that as important as it is, it hasn't benefitted anyone other than the physicists who earn their living seeking it.

Until July 4, the Higgs was pure theory, and now it seems to be a reality. Perhaps mental health is similar: something we are certain is there but that we have not been able to find.

Or perhaps have not tried hard enough to find.

If we can spend all those billions to find the Higgs Particle, surely human mental health is worth something.

Erik Roskes, a regular blogger for The Crime Report, is a forensic psychiatrist and serves on the teaching faculty in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. The opinions expressed are those of the author only, and do not represent those of any of Dr. Roskes' employers or consultees, including the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. He welcomes readers' comments. Dr. Roskes' website is

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