Book Review: Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic

April 21, 2010 at 5:31 am | Posted in Book Reviews | 2 Comments

If you’re taking psych meds or care about anyone who is, click here and order Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic right this minute. Better yet, hie thee to your local big box bookstore, buy it today, and start it tonight. You’ll want an emergency appointment with your shrink the next day.

I am prone to exaggeration, I suspect, but I’m not indulging that sin when I tell you that this is the most important book I’ve read about psych meds. Whitaker argues that, far from fixing “broken brains” or relieving symptoms, psych meds — antipsychotics, antianxiolytics, antidepressants, and mood stabilizers — cause the very illnesses that they purport to cure.

I don’t want to believe Whitaker. I want to plug my ears and hum, put out my eyes rather than read the words on the page. The evidence is irrefutable, though, and it’s pulled from a staggering variety of unimpeachable sources.

A crude summary:

1. Clinical studies have shown again and again that antidepressants, for example, are no more effective than placebos in relieving depression. This is well-established, and has even been discussed in the general press, including my beloved New York Times. The few studies that do show efficacy do so because they were crudely manipulated by the sponsoring drug companies.

2. It’s also long been accepted that psych drugs do not work the way that conventional wisdom says that they do (I read about this debate most recently in The New York Review of Books, but if you’re interested in these things, again, this will not be news). That is, they do not supplement a serotonin deficiency. Whitaker takes this debate to its logical conclusion, demonstrating that powerful evidence exists that psych drugs actually damage the brain’s ability use the neurotransmitters available. The science is not based on speculation, and this is not a hypothesis. The mechanism of action of antidepressants is old news, and Whitaker’s argument simply presents long-available information in a lucid, step-by-step fashion.

3. But what about those hordes of crazy people who got their lives back when psych meds were introduced? Um, that didn’t happen. Depression, anxiety disorders, and manic-depression were all vanishingly rare in the centuries before the 1970s and 1980s. Systematic examination of the studies available shows that all three have reached epidemic levels in the last 30 years.

4. More horrifying still: Large-scale outcomes have deteriorated significantly significantly for all of the mental illnesses for which drug treatments are available. In the 1950s, about half of the few people who suffered a manic, psychotic or depressive episode remitted spontaneously. When patients did experience repeated episodes, they enjoyed long interim periods of stability and high functioning — they married, had children, held jobs, and lived largely normal lives. People who are diagnosed with a mental illness today are much more likely to be permanently disabled, and much less likely to function well enough to get an education, hold a job, marry, or care for any children they may have. By objective and subjective measures, their lives are a misery.

Have I mentioned that I am one of them, and that my life has sucked?

5. It’s always been acknowledged by enlightened practitioners that psych drugs are, at best, a bargain with the devil. When doctors weren’t just telling you to shut up and take your meds already — do you want to be a burden on society? — they were apologetically explaining that side effects ranging from humiliating to life-threatening are a small price to pay for the privilege of living a normal life. Psych drugs can kill you quickly, through, say, a serotonergic reaction or a fatal spike in blood pressure. They can kill you slowly by causing dangerous weight gain, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. And, of course, they can render your life pointless by making you impotent, for example, or robbing you of your intellectual and artistic gifts.

That’s the quick-and-dirty version. There’s a lot more, including cogent responses to all of the objections that are bubbling up on your lips right now. Read it. I dare you.

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2 Comments »

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  1. Sadly the people that really need to study this book and take it all on board will not read it.

  2. dang amazing stuff man.


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