Tag Archives: Robert Whitaker

Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic

Robert Whitaker, Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America (Crown Publishers 2010)

When I told my ENT surgeon I was reading a book about science and the use of psychiatric drugs, he said, ‘One of those books about evil psychiatrists, is it?’ I was only about a third of the way in at the time, and replied, ‘No, I think the villain of the piece is the drug companies defending their huge profits.’ ‘Ah,’ he said, shocking me just a little, ‘psychiatry is about a hundred years behind the rest of medicine in terms of being evidence based.’

In fact, this book mounts a convincing case that psychiatry is not a hundred years behind at all, but is in a whole different paddock. Basically Robert Whitaker has done a meticulous survey of the scientific literature about ‘mental illness’ (my quote marks) and the effects of psychiatric drugs, and holds up to the light the startling difference between the received wisdom on one hand and what the science shows – or fails to show – on the other. In fact, it seems, the evidence indicates that drugs used to deal with anxiety, depression and schizophrenia are not only ineffective, but do more harm than good and in the long run are causing widespread devastation. Towards the end of the book he lists no fewer than sixteen major studies conducted since 1990, all contradicting the mainstream version the efficacy of psychiatric drugs, and says he can find no mention of any of them in any US newspaper. In such matters, of course, newspapers depend on press releases from professional organisations and government agencies, and it seems that the US psychiatric profession has thrown its lot in with the big pharmacological companies. Likewise the relevant government body, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the major patient advocacy group (which, like opinion leaders among psychiatrists, receives staggering level of funding from big business). The websites of neither the NIMH nor the advocacy group make any mention of the uncomfortable science.

Whitaker writes well. He appears to be meticulous in his reporting of the science. I’ve taken a while to blog about it because I didn’t want to write in a state of rage. But let me say now, calmly, that anyone who has ever been prescribed psychiatric drugs, anyone who routinely or occasionally prescribes them, and especially anyone who is being advised to give them to their children, should read this book. Whether the drugs are for depression, anxiety or schizophrenia, this holds true. The fact that someone is wearing a white coat and has a lot of money and big words at their disposal doesn’t make them a scientist. The fact that people’s lives are made miserable by ‘mental illness’ doesn’t mean that prescribing drugs for them is an act of compassion rather than a way to suppress the symptoms that disturb the rest of us at significant cost to the sufferer. The fact that psychiatric drugs are opposed by Scientologists and people who want to blame the mother doesn’t mean they’re good for you.

The most striking thing about the book for me was something I read after I’d finished it. I was concerned that Whitaker’s argument coincided pretty closely with my own understanding of things before I read it (see final paragraph below). So I went looking for responses and rebuttals. As it turns out, Whitaker has a web site where he provides links to just such writing: the slippery logic and shaky data of the rebuttals delivered by leading psychiatrists provides emphatic confirmation that he is on the money.

There are alternatives. The book and Whitaker’s web site include examples of projects that have produced very promising results before attack from the psychiatric profession and withdrawal of funds closed them down, and a couple of examples where the projects managed to gain funds not controlled by the forces of darkness (oh dear, I obviously haven’t calmed down quite enough! but really, the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, with 200 million dollars in its pocket, was able to successfully challenge the iron-clad assumption of the courts that anyone who objected to being given psychiatric drugs was ipso facto incompetent, where elsewhere no one has had the resources to challenge the expert witnesses for the status quo). There’s a region in Finland where schizophrenia has virtually been wiped out by an approach that involves (I’m simplifying) open dialogue with someone with signs 0f psychosis and caution in prescribing drugs.  In Australia, the Personal Helpers Mentors Program, while not antagonistic to psychiatry, has a non-medical approach which goes a long way to helping people to function well and to manage their symptoms.

Some friends of mine are on the way to opening the Pajaro Valley Sunrise Center in California, a residential facility for people wanting to come off psychiatric drugs. Because, of course, you can’t just stop taking drugs that change the functioning of your brain without bringing on terrible reactions (which, according to Whitaker, is used as an argument for keeping people on them for life). I was mildly supportive before reading this book. Now I’m in danger, as my brother in law says, of becoming a proselytiser.

End of year lists 2011

Here are the Art Student’s best five movies for the year, in no particular order. That’s five out of roughly 43 movies we went to. (If you don’t know a movie the title links to  its IMDb page.)

Inside Job: A documentary about the Global Financial Crisis. The most memorable thing is that at the end Obama kept in something like 20 key positions the same people whose advice had led to the policies that brought about the collapse.

Of Gods and Men: The AS knew this was on my list and wouldn’t give me a comment.

Win Win: She liked this for its moral complexity and understatedness.

The Guard: This made her laugh. She liked being seduced by someone who did bad things.

Bill Cunningham New York: She was exhilarated by this and loved it as a model of a kind of integrity that may well be disappearing from the western world.

And mine:
Bill Cunningham New York: See the Art Student’s comment above

Of Gods and Men: Interestingly enough, this is also a study in integrity, and though it’s fiction, it ends with a profound letter written by the actual man it’s based on.

Source Code: An SF Groundhog Day that I found completely delightful.

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front: There seems to be a theme emerging: what I loved about this was that its main character had done bad things with good intentions and took responsibility for his actions. It also cast yet more unflattering light on the US authorities’ response to ‘terrorism’.

Toomelah: I saw this at the Sydney Film Festival, introduced by Ivan Sen in the company of two young actors. Perhaps that’s why I saw it as an ultimately hopeful, though unsparing, look at life in a crushed, neglected and dysfunctional Aboriginal community.

About books, the Art Student claims not to be able to remember back past the last book she read, but she’s happy to have Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes in her top five books for the year. This year, following the shocking VIDA statistics on gender bias in literary journals, I decided to keep track of whether books I read were by men or women, and a quick count shows, astonishingly that I read 25 books by men and 23 by women. Compulsive honesty has me acknowledge that many of the books by women were very short. the most dubious inclusion being a YouTube video of Harvard Professors reading Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon.  My top five, a list that might look quite different if I did it on another day:

Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children. What a painful pleasure to re read this! I can’t think of a character I’ve hated more, while being fascinated, than Sam Pollitt.

Francis Webb, Collected Poems and a number of ancillary books.

Charles Dickens, Bleak House. I’m that much less likely to win a game of Humiliation now that I’ve read this. I completely understand why Claire Tomalin read this twice when researching her biography of Dickens – she wasn’t prompted by duty but by pleasure.

Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance. Phew! We’re into the 21st century. After the necessarily careful correctness of, say, Kate Grenville’s novels about early contact in Sydney, this exuberant, multi-faceted, generous, funny, heartbreaking novel is like a blast of clean air.

Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America. Whenever I’m asked what my favourite book is I’m tempted to name the one I’m currently reading, but this really is a wonderful book, all the more shocking for the care with which it marshals its evidence and argument. I want to push it into the hands of everyone I know.

Please quarrel with these lists, add your recommendations, etc.