Mental Health Moment: The Nature vs. Nurture Debate

Mental Health Moment: The Nature vs. Nurture Debate

Since the time of the ancient Greeks, the question of nature versus nurture has been debated.  So, which is it?  The best answer I ever heard from a professor was, “It is one hundred percent of both.”  It may be poor math, but it adds up.  Nature and nurture are inextricably interwoven through many factors.

We are born hard-wired for abilities, behaviors, and personality traits such as resilience or thrill-seeking behavior.  Our geographic and psychological environment play a role, too.  You may be an innately, perfectly designed human for ski jumping, but if you live in Florida and never travel, how would you know?

For many years twin studies have been done on the nature/nurture debate.  Twins separated at birth have many similarities but they also have differences.  Again, nature versus nurture is not as simple as taking one view in deference to another.  Individual variables are endless.  Certain illnesses such as bipolar disorders and addiction are highly genetic, while others are not.

Sadly, somewhere in this debate, the insurance companies separated behavioral health care and physical health care.  This frustrates many and may further stigmatize people seeking help.  The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, signed in 2008 by President George W. Bush, requires doctors and insurers to treat mental illness the same as physical illness.  Since the bill has been passed, Florida has placed a $35.00 co-pay cap on behavioral health care.

A wide array of neuroscience fields is growing.  Technology is allowing us to see brain imaging by MRI and activity information from PET scans.  This imaging guides the implementation of proper treatment.  Would you tell someone with diabetes it’s all in their head and to make their own insulin?

There is a new brain/machine interface that inserts a stentrode into the brain so a person’s thoughts can control a prosthetic.  We are not far from bionic reality.  Our thoughts are a powerful part of us that control our bodies, impulses, moods, and so much more.  That is why many mental health issues can be helped by interpersonal talk therapy.  Studies have shown people report a fifteen percent increase in well-being by simply making an appointment with a therapist or doctor.  Nurturing assists nature and vice versa.  Too much stress releases toxic chemicals in the body.  Sharing stress-related issues in a therapeutic environment stimulates serotonin, oxytocin, and other calming chemicals.

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change.  Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is a widely used form of counseling.  When you challenge negative thoughts with positive ones, your behavior will change.  Over time, new neural pathways form.

Bessel Van de Kolk, MD, who authored The Body Keeps the Score, has studied the effects of trauma.  His work is a comprehensive guide to prove that psychological trauma can physically re-wire the brain.  PTSD is not merely a “mental illness.”  We can override the effects of trauma by engaging our nature and getting the proper nurturing through many ways such as yoga or creative therapies that engage all the senses.

Doctors use medications to treat mental health issues.  Vagus nerve stimulators are sometimes surgically implanted to reduce the symptoms of epilepsy and severe depression.  These medical interventions help psychological illnesses, so the nature/nurture debate is rapidly becoming integrated into complex practices that will improve an individual’s care.



About the author: Mary Joye, LMHC, PA, is a licensed mental health counselor with offices in Lakeland and Winter Haven.  She holds a Master of Arts in Counseling from Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tennessee.  For more information, visit

Categories: Columns, Health News