Mental health can have 'tipping points' just like ecosystems

Mental health can have 'tipping points' just like ecosystems

8 April 2024

Mental illness shares characteristics with ‘complex systems’ like climates, ecosystems or financial markets, a new study suggests, and applying principles used to monitor the resilience of these systems can help identify potential ‘tipping points’ that could shape future mental health treatments. 

The innovative new thinking has emerged as part of a global collaboration of mathematicians, ecologists, psychologists and psychiatrists, including Orygen research leaders Professor Patrick McGorry and Professor Barnaby Nelson. 

The resultant papers, published in JAMA Psychiatry, found that the fundamental principles that rule the stability of climate systems can also apply to the mind, and the mathematical theory of dynamical systems offers a novel approach to understanding the complex and changing nature of mental health.  

Co-author Professor Barnaby Nelson from Orygen said the research offered an exciting approach that could lead to new ways of measuring resilience and managing treatment.  

“Thinking about mental health as a dynamic and complex system can help us move away from an idea that a diagnosis of mental illness is fixed or immutable,” Professor Nelson said.  

“In fact, there are multiple factors influencing an individual’s resilience, and how well they might respond to psychological, social or biological stressors – so being able to recognise when people are close to a tipping point could help us make treatment decisions such as whether somebody needs a brief intervention or something more intensive or sustained.”  

Professor Nelson said that this new theoretical approach supports the idea that instead of silver bullet cures, most patients benefit more from a holistic and individualised approach.   

“That used to sound a bit vague, but now we realise that if we approach mental health as a complex system we can borrow solid insights from other fields of science that focus on complexity.”  

Lead author Professor Marten Scheffer from Wageningen University in the Netherlands said the new way of thinking emerged from cooperation between scientists from different fields.  

“This shift in thinking was sparked through conversations with an ecologist about how environmental systems stay balanced – for example how water in a lake stays healthy and clear instead of becoming murky or turbid,” Professor Scheffer said.  

“The approach to supporting healthy ecosystems is about recognising tell-tale signs of potential ‘tipping points’ that might send a system into decline, and making brief interventions to maintain resilience.  

“The parallels for mental health are hard to miss – we know that mental health can change over time, and if we can recognise potential tipping points in this complex system, we can make well-timed interventions that bolster resilience and restore balance.”  

Professor Scheffer said it is time for a paradigm shift in how we view mental illness, and understanding the mind as a complex ecosystem offered the key to new insights and interventions.  

“For ecosystems and the climate, dynamic systems and an understanding of tipping points is well accepted science by now – for psychology and psychiatry it is completely new.”