Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America

Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America

by Robert Whitaker


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307452429
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 08/02/2011
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 77,310
Product dimensions: 7.78(w) x 5.32(h) x 0.93(d)

About the Author

ROBERT WHITAKER is the author of Mad in America, The Mapmaker’s Wife, and On the Laps of Gods, all of which won recognition as “notable books” of the year. His newspaper and magazine articles on the mentally ill and the pharmaceutical industry have garnered several national awards, including a George Polk Award for medical writing and a National Association of Science Writers Award for best magazine article. A series he cowrote for the Boston Globe on the abuse of mental patients in research settings was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1998.

Read an Excerpt

A Modern Plague

“That is the essence of science: ask an impertinent question, and you are on the way to a pertinent answer.” —Jacob Bronowski (1973)

This is the story of a medical puzzle. The puzzle is of a most curious sort, and yet one that we as a society desperately need to solve, for it tells of a hidden epidemic that is diminishing the lives of millions of Americans, including a rapidly increasing number of children. The epidemic has grown in size and scope over the past five decades, and now disables 850 adults and 250 children every day. And those startling numbers only hint at the true scope of this modern plague, for they are only a count of those who have become so ill that their families or caregivers are newly eligible to receive a disability check from the federal government.

Now, here is the puzzle.

As a society, we have come to understand that psychiatry has made great progress in treating mental illness over the past fifty years. Scientists are uncovering the biological causes of mental disorders, and pharmaceutical companies have developed a number of effective medications for these conditions. This story has been told in newspapers,
magazines, and books, and evidence of our societal belief in it can be found in our spending habits. In 2007, we spent $25 billion on anti-depressants and antipsychotics, and to put that figure in perspective, that was more than the gross domestic product of Cameroon, a nation of 18 million people.

In 1999, U.S. surgeon general David Satcher neatly summed up this story of scientific progress in a 458- page report titled Mental Health. The modern era of psychiatry, he explained, could be said to have begun in 1954. Prior to that time, psychiatry lacked treatments that could “prevent patients from becoming chronically ill.” But then Thorazine was introduced. This was the first drug that was a specific antidote to a mental disorder—it was an antipsychotic medication—and it kicked off a psychopharmacological revolution. Soon antidepressants and antianxiety agents were discovered, and as a result, today we enjoy “a variety of treatments of well documented efficacy for the array of clearly defined mental and behavioral disorders that occur across the life span,” Satcher wrote. The introduction of Prozac and other “ second- generation” psychiatric drugs, the surgeon general added, was “stoked by advances in both neurosciences and molecular biology” and represented yet another leap forward in the treatment of mental disorders.

Medical students training to be psychiatrists read about this history in their textbooks, and the public reads about it in popular accounts of the field. Thorazine, wrote University of Toronto professor Edward Shorter, in his 1997 book, A History of Psychiatry, “initiated a revolution in psychiatry, comparable to the introduction of penicillin in general medicine.” That was the start of the “psychopharmacology era,” and today we can rest assured that science has proved that the drugs in psychiatry’s medicine cabinet are beneficial. “We have very effective and safe treatments for a broad array of psychiatric disorders,” Richard Friedman, director of the psychopharmacology clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College, informed readers of the New York Times on June 19, 2007. Three days later, the Boston Globe, in an editorial titled “When Kids Need Meds,” echoed this sentiment: “The development of powerful drugs has revolutionized the treatment of mental illness.”

Psychiatrists working in countries around the world also understand this to be true. At the 161st annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, which was held in May 2008 in Washington, D.C., nearly half of the twenty thousand psychiatrists who attended were foreigners. The hallways were filled with chatter about schizophrenia, bipolar illness, depression, panic disorder, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and a host of other conditions described in the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,and over the course of five days, most of the lectures, workshops, and symposiums told of advances in the field. “We have come a long way in understanding psychiatric disorders, and our knowledge continues to expand,” APA president Carolyn Robinowitz told the audience in her opening- day address. “Our work saves and improves so many lives.”

But here is the conundrum. Given this great advance in care, we should expect that the number of disabled mentally ill in the United States, on a per- capita basis, would have declined over the past fifty years. We should also expect that the number of disabled mentally ill, on a per- capita basis, would have declined since the arrival in 1988 of Prozac and the other second- generation psychiatric drugs. We should see a two- step drop in disability rates. Instead, as the psychopharmacology revolution has unfolded, the number of disabled mentally ill in the United States has skyrocketed. Moreover, this increase in the number of disabled mentally ill has accelerated further since the introduction of Prozac and the other secondgeneration psychiatric drugs. Most disturbing of all, this modernday plague has now spread to the nation’s children.

The disability numbers, in turn, lead to a much larger question. Why are so many Americans today, while they may not be disabled by mental illness, nevertheless plagued by chronic mental problems—by recurrent depression, by bipolar symptoms, and by crippling anxiety? If we have treatments that effectively address these disorders, why has mental illness become an ever- greater health problem in the United States?

From the Hardcover edition.

Table of Contents

Foreword ix

Part 1 The Epidemic

1 A Modern Plague 3

2 Anecdotal Thoughts 12

Part 2 The Science of Psychiatric Drugs

3 The Roots of an Epidemic 39

4 Psychiatry's Magic Bullets 47

5 The Hunt for Chemical Imbalances 67

Part 3 Outcomes

6 A Paradox Revealed 89

7 The Benzo Trap 126

8 An Episodic Illness Turns Chronic 148

9 The Bipolar Boom 172

10 An Epidemic Explained 205

11 The Epidemic Spreads to Children 216

12 Suffer the Children 247

Part 4 Explication of a Delusion

13 The Rise of an Ideology 263

14 The Story That was … and Wasn't Told 283

15 Tallying Up the Profits 313

Part 5 Solutions

16 Blueprints for Reform 331

Epilogue 361

Notes 363

Acknowledgments 395

Index 397

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Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Michael_Reed_Davison More than 1 year ago
He makes several good points: drug companies do profit from selling the most expensive drugs available, they do advertise heavily under the guise of "education," and most psychiatric drugs are not as effective as this advertising suggests. We don't know about the long-term effectiveness of most drugs, either. However, I can't help but notice that Whitaker, himself, has a financial incentive to tell an exciting story. He's a journalist. Therefore, while I view psychiatric drugs with some caution, I don't assume that the situation is quite as terrifying as he makes it out to be.
Rossa_Forbes More than 1 year ago
In this otherwise superb book, there is little mention of how useful alternative mental health remedies can be in treating mental illness. This, I suppose, is understandable given that the book is about how pharma and her willing handmaidens have contributed to the epidemic of mental illness. There is another side to this epidemic - the people who disagree with the biological brain disease version of mental illness are severely demonized by psychiatrists, doctors, and pharmaceutical companies (of course). Patients are routinely told by their doctors that vitamins and certain psychotherapies are unproven or even dangerous, and at best, well, they may not hurt you but don't expect them to help you. They have kicked the legs out from under you and there is nothing left but drugs. From a consumer point of view it would be instructive to know if the people whose stories are told in the book ever seriously tried some form of psychotherapy or took vitamin supplements to help them get off the drugs. Most psychiatric consumers are only too aware that psychiatry has been hijacked by drug prescription and that psychiatrists (American ones, anyway) are handsomely remunerated for prescribing not listening. Psychiatrists have convinced themselves that the drugs are needed to help them do their job better, but their patients aren't at all convinced. If they were, why is drug compliance such a problem? Why are people so fed up with their psychiatrists not listening to them? Drug based psychiatry seems to be one area where the customer is always wrong. If manufacturers noticed that people were failing to use their products in the way they were intended, would they blame the customer? Of course not! Many psychiatrists, however, have this patronizing view that their clients are mentally ill and incapable of making rational choices when it comes to how they feel about what they are swallowing. Taking vitamins, undergoing certain psychotherapies, practicing yoga and changing your belief system is not a quick fix, but it does work over time. As a mother of a son given a psychiatric label, I can vouch that this slow fix also works for me. We all can benefit from the experience. Vitamin support should be a first line of defence if you are trying to get off your meds. Some people may not need this, but many do. Not everybody is going to have a hard time withdrawing from the drugs, but they will be the exception, not the rule. The drugs change your biochemistry. Your biochemistry is not changed because you are depressed or schizophrenic. For every study that claims it is, there is a study that refutes this. So why buy into the former claim? It makes you worse off in the long term, as Anatomy of an Epidemic so rightly points out. Whitaker writes about the young woman/old hag optical illusion. This is the drawing that most of us are familar with that shows a young woman, if you look at the drawing one way, and an old hag if you focus on it another way. Whitaker is writing about it more in terms of a perceptual illusion in which the public prefers to believe that psychiatric drugs produce outcomes like the beautiful young woman, but he writes that a closer look will reveal what the public doesn't see - long term use of psychiatric drugs reveals the old hag, an different picture.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A thoroughly researched overview of the state of mental health as it is viewed by the majority today. Mr. Whitaker painstakingly pieces together a picture of modern mental health as detailed by both the research into mental health issues and the industries seeking to treat them. If this book falls flat anywhere, it is those occasional sensationalist comments that belie the author's background as a journalist. It is obvious that this he is passionate about this topic and can sometimes be forceful in getting his view across. Ultimately, a must read for anyone who is curious about the current state of the field of psychiatry in the Western world today and who seeks alternatives to the established medical model.
boppie on LibraryThing 11 months ago
ABSOLUTE MUST-READ if you or anyone in your family takes or has been prescribed antidepressants, anti-psychotics, or anti-anxiety medication. Big Pharma and the American Psychiatric Association have colluded (with malign neglect from the FDA) to CAUSE an epidemic - no, pandemic - of mental illness in our country over the last 50 years all in the name of their own profit, and prestige, respectively. I am one of the people on whose backs this has been done, and I am stunned at the evidence that the author found that was suppressed - and that the FDA allowed to be suppressed - that proves that all these medications that we've been taking as adults ARE MAKING US MORE DEPRESSED, AND LESS ABLE, LESS RESILIENT, and CHANGING THE SHAPES OF OUR BRAINS. They are not CURES - they are short-term masks of symptoms, and long-term illness creators. And now they are prescribing this CRAP to children as young as TWO because doctors, conveniently in the pay of Big Pharma as 'thought leaders', are changing the parameters of disease diagnoses to increase the potential consumer base. READ THIS BOOK, and GIVE IT TO EVERY PARENT YOU KNOW.
Vietnam1968 More than 1 year ago
Robert Whitaker has compiled enormous amount of documented research to support his view- the psychological medications cause one to be more unhealthy over the years, than if they never took these medications. As as pharmacist for 40 years I can attest to see these patients continue to have more medications added to their regiments and also higher doses being needed. In the long run only the drug companies benefit, not most of these patients. Besides the psychosis becoming more severe, these patients must also take other medications due to the increased weight, high cholesterol levels, and also higher blood sugar levels leading to diabetes. I can attest to the fact if you are going to depend on medications improving your health, you are being lead down the road Big Pharma wants you to go. The idea we have life-saving medications is a myth. If you do not change your habits, lifestyle, and diet, and simply depend on medications, your health will not improve. Maybe your life will be extended, but you will not enjoy those medicated extended days. When it comes to diet, we Americans eat what pleases the tongue, not what the body needs for health and maintenance. I have come to conclusion medications are for the uneducated masses who follow the crowd. When you have a health problem it is a sign your body is telling you what you have been doing needs changing, not to depend on more organic compounds the body does not need. This book also allows one to discover the unreality of drug studies. The drug companies always determine the length of the study to make sure their drug performs well. Many of what I have seen lately are simply fraudulent. And Whitaker's example of what Eli Lilly did to make Prozac appear to of benefit is just not one example. We simply do not know how good a drug really is until it has been on the market for 5-10 years. So the idea newer drugs are better, simply is not the case. I would not use any new drug until I can see it's record over 10 years.
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pillcounterBH More than 1 year ago
Check out this book before you or your family members start psychiatric meds-- an eye opening read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An absolute must read