Every once in a while, good journalism can expose a great lie that has gone mostly undetected – and unpublished – for decades. Case in point: Anatomy of an Epidemic, a new book by Robert Whitaker.
First, consider a few facts:
- Between 1996 and 2005, the number of Americans taking antidepressants doubled.
- Mental illness disability rates have doubled since 1987, and increased six-fold since 1955.
- According to the Centers for Disease Control, antidepressants are now the most commonly prescribed class of drugs in the U.S. — ahead of drugs for cholesterol, blood pressure and asthma.
- Of the 2.4 billion drugs prescribed in 2005, 118 million were for depression.
- Antidepressant and antipsychotic drugs gross more than $25 billion each year in the U.S.
Now, people who have followed me for any length of time know that I’m an advocate for drug-free health care. You know my bias. But this is not another one of Terry Rondberg’s tirades against the pharmaceutical companies.
This book, Anatomy of an Epidemic, is written by a former reporter for the Boston Globe. He won a George Polk Award for medical writing, a National Association of Science Writers Award for best magazine article, and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. In other words, Whitaker is an investigative journalist, not some nut with an ax to grind.
In preparation for writing the book, Whitaker pored over 50 years of psychiatric literature and conducted dozens of in-depth interviews with patients.
The book’s conclusion: overall, antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs may be doing more harm than good. Here are some examples:
- Based on studies published in leading medical journals, patients with schizophrenia do better off medication than on it.
- Children who take drugs for ADHD are more likely to wind up suffering from mania and bipolar disorder than kids who go unmedicated.
- In the pre-antidepressant era, most severely depressed, hospitalized patients could expect to get well over time. Today, however, there’s a high incidence of patients on long-term drug therapy who become chronically ill.
The sad fact is, the industry has known about this for years. In the 1970s, Jonathan Cole – often called the father of American psychopharmacology – wrote a paper called “Is the Cure Worse Than the Disease?” stipulating that antipsychotics weren’t the lifesaving drugs that people had hoped.
In his book, Whitaker discusses another study in 2007 regarding outcomes for schizophrenia patients, which found that the recovery rate was 40 percent for patients without medication, and just 5 percent for those using medication. Says Whitaker: “I checked all the [National Institutes for Mental Health] press releases for 2007, and found no release on this study. I found no announcement of it in any American Psychiatric Association publication or textbook. Not a single newspaper published an account of the study… even the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an advocacy organization — did not put out any press release about it or try to alert the media in any way.”
Again, I have been saying things like this for decades. And complaining that studies discussing negative aspects of drug therapy go under-reported. So it’s nice to have some third-party endorsement. I just hope that Whitaker’s book will get more attention than those that have gone before, if not from the medical establishment, then from consumers and policymakers.