By Chris Barsanti
February 24, 2010
What if antidepressants were not just too easily available and overly prescribed by doctors—as has been argued in many venues for years now, though to no discernible effect—but didn’t even work? That’s the takeaway premise of psychology professor Irving Kirsch, Ph.D., in his new book, The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth.
By examining a broad spectrum of research, using both the published drug studies and the deep well of unpublished research which many drug companies would prefer stay hidden, Kirsch presents the all-too-plausible theory that there is essentially no positive effect from taking antidepressants. In fact, comparing test results between patients taking antidepressants and those taking active placebos (a drug that isn’t an antidepressant but has other, noticeable side effects, so that the patient can tell something is working on them), Kirsch found no statistically significant difference. Actually, he found that it didn’t seem to matter what drug patients were taking, as long as they knew they had ingested some kind of active drug, they improved by about the same degree. So much for the last few decades’ great advances in pharmacology, it would seem.
If what Kirsch is saying is true, then not only are untold millions being wasted on essentially worthless drugs, but an entire school of psychological thought is utterly wrong. Kirsch spends an entire chapter of his tightly argued book tearing down the oft-recited belief that depression is frequently or always caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. After relating several studies which purport to show that drugs which increase, decrease, or have no effect on the serotonin levels in patients brains (something long described as crucial to pharmacological therapy) all have about the same effect, Kirsch concludes very simply that “the data just do not fit the theory”.