A worrisome trend has emerged in the last few decades that many physicians are choosing to ignore: As the amount of psychiatric drug prescriptions increase, our mental health declines. It’s time we swallow the hard pill and ask ourselves, are psychiatrists doing more harm than good?
I know that, to some of you, this question seems absurd. Why would licensed medical practitioners purposefully harm their patients? But that isn’t really what’s happening here, as the issue relates more to the over-prescription and misuse of mental health drugs, and the corporately funded miseducation that prompts this behavior, than any malicious intentions on the part of individual people.
The “Inconvenient Truth” About Mental Illness and Prescriptions
In 2013, approximately 17% of Americans were prescribed at least one mental health drug, in comparison to only 10% in 2011. The amount of people on psychiatric prescription drugs has drastically increased over the past 10 years and now 12% of adult Americans are taking some form of antidepressants alone (source).
It’s not just adults affected by the over-prescription of these drugs; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 11% of children between the ages of 4 and 17 were diagnosed with ADHD as of 2011. However, the American Psychiatric Association maintains that even though only 5% of American children suffer from the disorder, the diagnosis is actually given to around 15% of American children. This number has been steadily rising, jumping from 7.8% in 2003 to 9.5% in 2007. The simple reason for this increase? Profit.
However, despite the fact that the number of mental health drugs prescribed increases every year, our mental health has actually decreased. The amount of people who are considered to be so disabled by mental illness that they require Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) has increased by almost two and a half times between 1987 and 2007, from one in 184 Americans to one in seventy-six. Not surprisingly, the rise in the number of children affected by this is even worse, with a thirty-five-fold increase in that same timeframe (source). So, if the number of prescriptions are increasing, why is our mental health declining?
This phenomenon is what Thomas Insel, former Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, refers to as the “inconvenient truth” of mental illness. Suicide rates per 100,000 people have reached a 30-year high and substance abuse, especially with opiates, has become a national epidemic.
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Edmund S. Higgins, MD and Professor of Psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina, explains, “More people are getting treatment and taking medications today than ever before, so what is going on? I would argue that a lack of precision and objectivity in diagnosing and treating mental illness has stalled our progress.” Furthermore, Big Pharma has played a crucial role in creating the mental health drug epidemic.
Big Pharma’s Role in Increasing Prescriptions
This seems to be the general consensus of the North American population: If an advertisement or a misinformed MD says, “There’s a pill for that,” you take it. Our reliance on pharmaceutical drugs didn’t form by accident, however; it was carefully planned and funded by Big Pharma. The pharmaceutical industry manufactured it by heavily advertising drugs, bribing physicians, and funding health studies.
Big Pharma has done an excellent job of feeding the public propaganda through advertisements and education, as the more pills you take, the more money they make. The pharmaceutical industry has played a substantial role in increasing the amount of prescriptions and overall diagnoses of A.D.H.D. in the U.S. (read an article I wrote about this here) and other mental health illnesses. As Dr. Irwin Savodnik of UCLA explains, “The very vocabulary of psychiatry is now defined at all levels by the pharmaceutical industry.”
Doctors typically use the knowledge from the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to diagnose and treat mental illness. But the DSM has had its fair share of criticism, as it favours the use of pharmaceutical drugs over therapy and other healing modalities. Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and Editor-in-Chief of The Carlat Psychiatry Report Daniel J. Carlat, M.D, criticized the DSM, stating, “In psychiatry, many diseases are treated equally well with medication or therapy, but the guidelines tend to be biased toward medication.”
Holistic mental health practitioner Dr. Tyler Woods further explains:
The DSM tends to pathologize normal behaviors. For instance, the label “Anxiety Disorder” can be given as a result of some kinds of normal and rather healthy anxieties but the DSM will have experts view it and treat it as mental illness. In addition simple shyness can be seen and treated as “Social Phobia”, while spirited and strong willed children as “Oppositional Disorder”. Consequently, many psychotherapists, regardless of their theoretical orientations, tend to follow the DSM as instructed. (source)
In fact, Big Pharma has played a significant role in manufacturing our very definitions of mental illnesses and how they form in the first place. For example, the U.S. considers A.D.H.D. a neurological disorder whose symptoms are the result of biological disfunction or a chemical imbalance in the brain, much like many other mental disorders. However, other countries such as France see these mental disorders, including A.D.H.D., as a social context issue rather than a biological one, with many contributing factors and recommended treatments other than drugs. Dr. Marcia Angell, a physician, author, and the Editor-in-Chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, states:
When it was found that psychoactive drugs affect neurotransmitter levels in the brain, as evidenced mainly by the levels of their breakdown products in the spinal fluid, the theory arose that the cause of mental illness is an abnormality in the brain’s concentration of these chemicals that is specifically countered by the appropriate drug. For example, because Thorazine was found to lower dopamine levels in the brain, it was postulated that psychoses like schizophrenia are caused by too much dopamine. . . .
That was a great leap in logic . . . It was entirely possible that drugs that affected neurotransmitter levels could relieve symptoms even if neurotransmitters had nothing to do with the illness in the first place (and even possible that they relieved symptoms through some other mode of action entirely).
Why Pills Cannot Solve All of Our Problems
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take prescription medication for mental illness; that’s something that you and your doctor should decide. However, if your doctor fails to address any other means of dealing with your mental health, always choosing pills first rather than as a last or even second resort, then perhaps you should think about finding a doctor who understands the benefits of at least considering alternative options.
It’s important to note that even if prescription drugs are the reason our mental health is worsening, they’re certainly not the only reason. We’ve increased our amount of time spent using technology, staying indoors, and being sedentary, as well as worsened our diets and overall physical health with fast food, chemicals, toxins, animal products, and more — all of which may contribute to this decline in mental health.
However, there’s no denying the fact that Big Pharma has had a tangible and worrisome role in the psychiatric drug epidemic. Medical journalist and Pulitzer Prize nominee Robert Whitaker addresses this “inconvenient truth” by using depression as an example. Depression used to be considered a self-limiting illness that, even in severe situations where a patient requires hospitalization, could be cured within six to eight months. Very rarely would patients relapse, and if they did it would typically be many years later.
When antidepressants hit the market, our outlook on depression completely shifted. Even though antidepressants may have been created with good intentions, the reality is that patients taking these drugs are relapsing more quickly and more often. Whitaker explains that many patients on antidepressants will only recover partially in comparison to the full recoveries he’s seen in people who never took them in the first place.
In fact, only around 15% of those treated with antidepressants actually go into remission and maintain their mental health long-term. The other 85% are continuously relapsing or experience chronic depression.
It is clear that in many cases, we need to stop looking for outside help when it comes to our mental health. Our mental health is just that — it’s ours. It’s controlled by us, whether we like it or not. Many mental illnesses don’t stem from biological issues, contrary to what Big Pharma wants you to think, but are rather the result of different stressors in our lives. So, if we were able to connect with ourselves on a deeper level and actually get to the root of the problem, perhaps some of these disorders wouldn’t be so severe.