Whether the “chemical imbalance” theory is true or not, the real question is, Do antidepressants work better than placebos? Psychologist Irving Kirsch, one of the authors reviewed by Angell, used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain drug companies’ records of their negative studies from the FDA. Unlike the positive results, negative results are normally not published. (Incredibly to this writer, negative results are considered proprietary and therefore confidential.) Taking both positive and negative results into consideration, Kirsch discovered that six popular drugs — Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Celexa, Serzone, and Effexor — scored unimpressively when compared with placebos. Yet, as Angell writes, “because the positive studies were extensively publicized, while the negative ones were hidden, the public and the medical profession came to believe that these drugs were highly effective antidepressants.” It gets more surreal. When depressed patients were prescribed drugs such as opiates, sedatives, stimulants and even herbal remedies, Kirsch and others found their symptoms were relieved to about the same degree as with SSRI-type antidepressants.
I first took a close look at treatments for mental illness 15 years ago while researching an article for Scientific American. At the time, sales of a new class of antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRI’s, were booming. The first SSRI, Prozac, had quickly become the most widely prescribed drug in the world. Many psychiatrists, notably Peter D. Kramer, author of the best seller Listening to Prozac, touted SSRI’s as a revolutionary advance in the treatment of mental illness. Prozac, Kramer said in a phrase that I hope now haunts him, could make patients “better than well.”
Clinical trials told a different story. SSRI’s are no more effective than two older classes of antidepressants, tricyclics and monoamine oxidase inhibitors. What was even more surprising to me—given the rave reviews Prozac had received from Kramer and others—was that antidepressants as a whole were not more effective than so-called talking cures, whether cognitive behavioral therapy or even old-fashioned Freudian psychoanalysis. According to some investigators, treatments for depression and other common ailments work—if they do work—by harnessing the placebo effect, the tendency of a patient’s expectation of improvement to become self-fulfilling. I titled my article “Why Freud Isn’t Dead.” Far from defending psychoanalysis, my point was that psychiatry has made disturbingly little progress since the heyday of Freudian theory.
Is America truly stricken with widespread mental illness? Do tens of millions need mind-altering drugs? A recent flurry of media articles lead readers to a realization that Big Pharma and the “mental health” industry have deceived Americans on a grand scale.
The “New York Review of Books” two-part article by Dr. Marcia Angell, Senior Lecturer at Harvard Medical School and former Editor in Chief of The New England Journal of Medicine, summarizes it extremely well. She analyzes three books by authors Irving Kirsch, Robert Whitaker, and Daniel Carlat. Each deconstructs the apparent mental illness epidemic and theory that mental disorders stem from brain chemical imbalances which can be corrected by drugs.
Dr. Angell’s review has sparked a host of other journalists to applaud her and fuel the fire. An article in Forbes even concludes, “psychopharma is looking like an idea whose time has passed.”
A serious conversation is under way in the United States on the subject of psychiatric drugs. The debate consists of three fundamental issues: first, whether antidepressants actually treat depression; second, the vast, growing body of evidence that psychotropic medications alter the brain permanently; and third, the pharmaceutical industry’s continuing, decades-old corruption of American psychiatrists, many of whom have been made by drug companies’ shenanigans into little more than handsomely paid industry shills.
Has America become a nation of psychotics? You would certainly think so, based on the explosion in the use of antipsychotic medications. In 2008, with over $14 billion in sales, antipsychotics became the single top-selling therapeutic class of prescription drugs in the United States, surpassing drugs used to treat high cholesterol and acid reflux.
Once upon a time, antipsychotics were reserved for a relatively small number of patients with hard-core psychiatric diagnoses – primarily schizophrenia and bipolar disorder – to treat such symptoms as delusions, hallucinations, or formal thought disorder. Today, it seems, everyone is taking antipsychotics. Parents are told that their unruly kids are in fact bipolar, and in need of anti-psychotics, while old people with dementia are dosed, in large numbers, with drugs once reserved largely for schizophrenics. Americans with symptoms ranging from chronic depression to anxiety to insomnia are now being prescribed anti-psychotics at rates that seem to indicate a national mass psychosis.