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Are Prozac and Other Psychiatric Drugs Causing the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America?

An interview with investigative reporter Robert Whitaker, about the dramatic increase in mental illness disability and its surprising cause.

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Now there may be various cultural factors contributing to the increase in the number of disabled mentally ill in our society. But the outcomes literature -- and this really is a tragic story -- clearly shows that our drug-based paradigm of care is a primary cause.

BL: I have a clinical practice and I have seen several examples of what you are talking about, and I had previously read several of the scientific studies that you detail in Anatomy of an Epidemic, so I am not exactly a naïve reader. However, in reading your book and seeing the enormity of the problem and just how much overwhelming evidence there is for a horrible crisis, I started getting a little sick to my stomach. I wonder, as you got into the research, did you start drawing comparisons to Rachel Carson and Silent Spring? Specifically, this is such a huge unnecessary tragedy, affecting several million people including children, yet there is virtually no discussion of it in the mass media.

RW: A journalist friend of mine, who was a long-time reporter at the Washington Post and Newsday, said that he too was reminded of Silent Spring when he read Anatomy of an Epidemic . And, in fact, I was stunned by much of what I found when I was researching the book, and I did at times become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the tragedy. Let me give a specific example.

When you research the rise of juvenile bipolar illness in this country, you see that it appears in lockstep with the prescribing of stimulants for ADHD and antidepressants for depression. Prior to the use of those medications, you find that researchers reported that manic-depressive illness, which is what bipolar illness was called at the time, virtually never occurred in prepubertal children. But once psychiatrists started putting “hyperactive” children on Ritalin, they started to see prepubertal children with manic symptoms. Same thing happened when psychiatrists started prescribing antidepressants to children and teenagers. A significant percentage had manic or hypomanic reactions to the antidepressants. Thus, we see these two iatrogenic pathways to a juvenile bipolar diagnosis documented in the medical literature. And then what happens to the children and teenagers who end up with this diagnosis? They are now put on heavier-duty drugs and often on a drug cocktail, and you find that they do poorly on that treatment. You find that a high percentage end up “rapid cyclers,” which means they have severe “bipolar” symptoms, and that they can now be expected to be chronically ill throughout their lives.

We also know that the atypical antipsychotics [such as Risperdal and Zyprexa] prescribed to bipolar children cause a host of physical problems, and there is pretty good evidence that they cause cognitive decline over the long term. When you add up all this information, you end up documenting a story of how the lives of hundreds of thousands of children in the United States have been destroyed in this way. In fact, I think that the number of children and teenagers that have ended up “bipolar” after being treated with a stimulant or an antidepressant is now well over one million. This is a story of harm done on an unimaginable scale.

So why hasn’t the media reported on this? The answer is that the media, when it covers medicine, basically repeats the narrative fashioned by the academic doctors who are leaders in the particular discipline, and in this case, academic psychiatrists have told a story of new illnesses -- like juvenile bipolar illness -- being “discovered,” and of drugs for those treatments that are safe, effective and necessary. They tell this story to the public even as their own studies find that their juvenile bipolar patients -- who when they first came to a psychiatrist might simply have been “hyperactive” or struggling with a momentary bout of depression -- are ending up with severe bipolar symptoms and can now expect to be chronically ill for life. The problem is that our society trusts academic doctors to tell an honest story, and in this corner of medicine, it's quite easy to document -- and I did document this in Anatomy of an Epidemic -- that academic psychiatry has belied that trust.

 
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