“Anatomy of an Epidemic”

by davidbjensen

Whitaker, Robert.  Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America. New York: Crown Publishing Group.  2010.

In this book–an exposé of sorts–the author has done an outstanding job of illustrating what can legitimately be described as a farcical paradigm of treatment surrounding those diagnosed with mental illnesses and the prescribing of psychiatric drugs.  Ranging from schizophrenia, to depression, to ADHD, to anxiety and bipolar disorders, Whitaker has conducted in-depth research among the outcomes literature in medical journals (a lot of which took place at Harvard’s Countway Library of Medicine), which over and over again point toward one general conclusion: the long-term efficacy of the current range of commonly prescribed psychiatric drugs is negative.  Anti-depressants like Prozac, anti-anxiety meds like Xanax, ADHD meds such as Ritalin; all of these may serve some purpose in the short-term, but the medical literature does not and cannot show positive outcomes over the long-term, plain and simple.  In fact, the opposite is true, as his research documents “the astonishing bottom-line result produced by a medical specialty that has dramatically expanded diagnostic boundaries in the past fifty years and treated patients with drugs that perturb normal brain function,” (210).

Replete with facts and figures, the book contains many easily-digestible charts and graphs to quantify the data.  Also included are numerous testimonials espoused through case studies of patients themselves, almost all of whom attest to the fact that the drugs that are supposed to correct their said “chemical imbalance” not only don’t work, but often worsen target symptoms over the long run.  Many times, this results in higher dosages and/or a counterpart prescription to offset negative side-effects (which may have side-effects of their own, requiring yet a different prescription).  Patients often end up being put on “drug cocktails” and become dependent upon them for life.

How then, one might ask, is it that well-respected national organizations such as the American Psychological Association and the National Institute of Mental Health embrace this treatment scheme?  How come key opinion leaders in academia, such as Ivy League psychiatrists, continually tout the benefits of drugs that are shown to exacerbate long-term outcomes?  Well, not surprisingly, it has something to do with the astronomical sums of profit generated by the pharmaceutical industry and allied psychiatric practitioners who receive corporate kickbacks.

As the New England Journal of Medicine observed in 2000, thought leaders [in psychiatry] ‘serve as consultants to companies whose products they are studying, join advisory boards and speakers’ bureaus, enter into patent and royalty arrangements, agree to be the listed authors of articles ghostwritten by interested companies, promote drugs and devices at company-sponsored symposiums, and allow themselves to be plied with expensive gifts and trips to luxurious settings,’ (278).

The evidence pinpointed in this book only corroborates a long-held presumption of my own.  There may be more than one way to describe this perplexing situation, but on certain levels there is undoubtedly subversion of moral integrity at play.  Yes, the drugs have a place in psychiatry’s toolkit.  And yes, some people may respond well at first and may stabilize over the long run.  But legions of psychiatrists would be looking for new jobs if it were widely acknowledged that the biological causes of mental disorders remain largely unknown…that the overly prescribed drugs muck up the feedback loops of normally functioning neurotransmitter pathways rather than fix chemical imbalances…that longitudinal studies regularly reveal that the medications are worsening long-term outcomes and creating chronically ill patients with a lifetime dependency.

The most heartbreaking part of it all, though, is that this diagnostic/treatment paradigm extends in equally valid measure to our nation’s children.  Two year old kids being diagnosed with bipolar disorder?  Oh, please.

The implications of this epidemic are far deeper and more wide reaching than what I’ve described here, which the book covers in detail.

Robert Whitaker has also authored numerous articles on the mentally ill and the pharmaceutical industry, as well as a previous book on this topic entitled Mad in America:  Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill.

Also, FYI, there is a credible advocacy group out there calling the bluff.  They’re called MindFreedom, and they present a lot of worthy critique regarding the psychiatric establishment’s current state of affairs.