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John Horgan: Are Psychiatric Medications Making Us Sicker?


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Review of Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

 

Are Psychiatric Medications Making Us Sicker?

 

By John Horgan September 18, 2011 Chronicle of Higher Education

 

Three years ago....An old friend, whom I'll call Phil, was on the line. He was in the psychiatric ward of a New York hospital, to which his 16-year-old son had been committed. The boy, who was taking antidepressants for depression, had threatened to commit suicide, not for the first time. The doctors were recommending electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT. Knowing that I had written about shock therapy and other psychiatric treatments, Phil asked my opinion. The fact that Phil had called me, a mere journalist, for advice in such a dire situation spoke volumes about the troubles of modern psychiatry.

 

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....

 

In retrospect, my critique of modern psychiatry was probably too mild. According to Anatomy of an Epidemic (Crown Publishers, 2010), by the journalist Robert Whitaker, psychiatry has not only failed to progress but may now be harming many of those it purports to help. Anatomy of an Epidemic has been ignored by most major media. I learned about it only after Marcia Angell, former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine and now a lecturer on public health at Harvard, reviewed the book in The New York Review of Books in June. If Whitaker is right, American psychiatry, in collusion with the pharmaceutical industry, is perpetrating what may be the biggest case of iatrogenesis—harmful medical treatment—in history.

 

As recently as the 1950s, Whitaker contends, the four major mental disorders—depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia—often manifested as episodic and "self limiting"; that is, most people simply got better over time. Severe, chronic mental illness was viewed as relatively rare. But over the past few decades the proportion of Americans diagnosed with mental illness has skyrocketed. Since 1987, the percentage of the population receiving federal disability payments for mental illness has more than doubled; among children under the age of 18, the percentage has grown by a factor of 35.

 

This epidemic has coincided, paradoxically, with a surge in prescriptions for psychiatric drugs. Between 1985 and 2008, sales of antidepressants and antipsychotics multiplied almost fiftyfold, to $24.2-billion. Prescriptions for bipolar disorder and anxiety have also swelled. One in eight Americans, including children and even toddlers, is now taking a psychotropic medication. Whitaker acknowledges that antidepressants and other psychiatric medications often provide short-term relief, which explains why so many physicians and patients believe so fervently in the drugs' benefits. But over time, Whitaker argues, drugs make many patients sicker than they would have been if they had never been medicated.

 

Whitaker compiles anecdotal and clinical evidence that when patients stop taking SSRI's, they often experience depression more severe than what drove them to seek treatment. A multination report by the World Health Organization in 1998 associated long-term antidepressant usage with a higher rather than a lower risk of long-term depression. SSRI's cause a wide range of side effects, including insomnia, sexual dysfunction, apathy, suicidal impulses, and mania—which may then lead patients to be diagnosed with and treated for bipolar disorder.

 

Indeed, Whitaker suspects that antidepressants—as well as Ritalin and other stimulants prescribed for attention-deficit disorder—have catalyzed the recent spike in bipolar disorder. Though bipolar disorder was relatively rare just a half-century ago, reported rates of it have increased more than a hundredfold, to one in 40 adults. Side effects attributed to lithium and other common medications for bipolar disorder include deficits in memory, learning ability, and fine-motor skills. Similarly, benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax, which are prescribed for anxiety, are addictive; withdrawal from these sedatives can cause effects ranging from insomnia to seizures, as well as panic attacks.

 

Whitaker's analysis of treatments for schizophrenia is especially disturbing. Antipsychotics, from Thorazine to successors like Zyprexa, cause weight gain, physical tremors (called tardive dyskinesia) and, according to some studies, cognitive decline and brain shrinkage. Before the introduction of Thorazine in the 1950s, Whitaker asserts, almost two-thirds of the patients hospitalized for an initial episode of schizophrenia were released within a year, and most of this group did not require subsequent hospitalization.

 

Over the past half-century, the rate of schizophrenia-related disability has grown by a factor of four, and schizophrenia has come to be seen as a largely chronic, degenerative disease. A decades-long study by the World Health Organization found that schizophrenic patients fared better in poor nations, such as Nigeria and India, where antipsychotics are sparingly prescribed, than in wealthier regions such as the United States and Europe.

 

A long-term study by Martin Harrow, a psychologist at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, found an inverse correlation between medication for schizophrenia and positive, long-term outcomes. Beginning in the 1970s, Harrow tracked a group of 64 newly diagnosed schizophrenics. Forty percent of the nonmedicated patients recovered—meaning that they could become self-supporting—versus 5 percent of those who were medicated. Harrow theorized that those who were heavily medicated were sicker to begin with, but Whitaker suggests that the medications may be making some patients sicker.

 

Several possible objections to Whitaker's case against psychiatry come to mind. First of all, as Harrow speculates, over time heavily medicated patients may not fare as well as less-medicated patients because the former truly are sicker. Also, the recent surge in mental disability may stem, at least in part, from a decrease in the stigma associated with mental illness, spurring more people to seek and obtain treatment and government assistance. In her review, Marcia Angell called Whitaker's book "suggestive, if not conclusive," which seems right to me. At the very least, Whitaker's claims warrant further investigation.

 

Although Whitaker doesn't address electroconvulsive therapy, its persistence strikes me as yet another symptom of the weakness of modern psychiatry. It fell out of favor in the 1970s, in part because of its negative portrayal in the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and yet about 100,000 Americans a year still receive ECT. Studies suggest that the therapy can provide temporary relief from acute depression, but virtually everyone who receives electroconvulsive therapy relapses within a year without further treatment. Proponents claim that ECT has few significant side effects, but this year an FDA panel ruled that ECT should remain classified as a "high-risk" procedure because it can cause persistent memory loss and other side effects. If SSRI's and other psychiatric medications were truly effective, ECT would long ago have been tossed into the dustbin of failed psychiatric treatments.

 

So what happened to Phil's son? When Phil called me, I told him that if my son were suicidally depressed, I'd resist giving him shock treatment unless doctors convinced me there was absolutely no alternative. Phil decided against ECT, and his son, after being released from the hospital, gradually stopped taking antidepressants too. He still struggles with depression, and he smokes more marijuana than Phil would like. But he is healthy enough to be starting college this fall.

 

 

http://chronicle.com/article/Are-Psychiatric-Medications/128976/#disqus_thread

This is not medical advice. Discuss any decisions about your medical care with a knowledgeable medical practitioner.

"It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has surpassed our humanity." -- Albert Einstein

All postings © copyrighted.

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Sometimes I wonder if being "on" an SSRIS makes you more depressed than never taking one, even for those who are seriously depressed. What I mean is, that when I first went on Paxil at 16, I felt so much more depressed on it than I ever did before.

I know this isn't anything new, but it just seems a bit odd to me.

 

It's so good to hear that the guy in this story managed to get off AD's and be ready for college.

 

Sadly I never went to college myself, because at the time I had just CT'd off Celexa and was hit with bad depression. It truly changed the course of my life for the worse.

 

Sorry for rambling.

Off Lexapro since 3rd November 2011.

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""Several possible objections to Whitaker's case against psychiatry come to mind. First of all, as Harrow speculates, over time heavily medicated patients may not fare as well as less-medicated patients because the former truly are sicker. Also, the recent surge in mental disability may stem, at least in part, from a decrease in the stigma associated with mental illness, spurring more people to seek and obtain treatment and government assistance. In her review, Marcia Angell called Whitaker's book "suggestive, if not conclusive," which seems right to me. At the very least, Whitaker's claims warrant further investigation.""

 

Folks might want to go to the comments regarding Humble Consumer's negative review of Whitaker's book on Amazon's site at http://tinyurl.com/3jhap8l. Look for ones by IT geek.

 

She describes her situation in being diagnosed with BP disorder and telling her psychiatrist that the meds were causing her to not be able to function in her field. The psychiatrist suggested she lower her expectations and switch to a less demanding field like clerical work.

 

In my opinion, her experience is quite typical and is a perfect example as to how people end up on disability. Also, I obviously agree with Whitaker about the effects of the heavy duty medication causing this.

 

Phil, is it still possible for you to go to college in the future? Many people in the US don't go right after high school

 

CS

Drug cocktail 1995 - 2010
Started taper of Adderall, Wellbutrin XL, Remeron, and Doxepin in 2006
Finished taper on June 10, 2010

Temazepam on a PRN basis approximately twice a month - 2014 to 2016

Beginning in 2017 - Consumption increased to about two times per week

April 2017 - Increased to taking it full time for insomnia

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I suppose I can, CS. I guess I'm a bit skeptical of my future right now, but that's just the depression talking.

Off Lexapro since 3rd November 2011.

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A few steps at a time, Phil -- maybe take one class? As you get better, you'll be able to do more.

 

The problem with the "more medicated patients were the sicker ones" is that, in reality, there is no correlation between length of time on meds number of meds and degree of "mental illness" -- the diagnoses are arbitrary! But people in the medical field want to believe that the diagnosis statistics, at least are accurate.

This is not medical advice. Discuss any decisions about your medical care with a knowledgeable medical practitioner.

"It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has surpassed our humanity." -- Albert Einstein

All postings © copyrighted.

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