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Has America Become a Nation of Psychotics? You'd Certainly Think So, Based on the Medications We're Taking

Antipsychotics are the single top-selling therapeutic class of prescription drugs in the United States.
 
 
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Has America become a nation of psychotics? You would certainly think so, based on the explosion in the use of antipsychotic medications. In 2008, with over $14 billion in sales, antipsychotics became the single top-selling therapeutic class of prescription drugs in the United States,  surpassing drugs used to treat high cholesterol and acid reflux.

Once upon a time, antipsychotics were reserved for a relatively small number of patients with hard-core psychiatric diagnoses - primarily schizophrenia and bipolar disorder - to treat such symptoms as delusions, hallucinations, or formal thought disorder. Today, it seems, everyone is taking antipsychotics. Parents are told that their unruly kids are in fact bipolar, and in need of anti-psychotics, while old people with dementia are dosed, in large numbers, with drugs once reserved largely for schizophrenics. Americans with symptoms ranging from chronic depression to anxiety to insomnia are now being prescribed anti-psychotics at rates that seem to indicate a national mass psychosis.

It is anything but a coincidence that the explosion in antipsychotic use coincides with the pharmaceutical industry's development of a new class of medications known as "atypical antipsychotics." Beginning with Zyprexa, Risperdal, and Seroquel in the 1990s, followed by Abilify in the early 2000s, these drugs were touted as being more effective than older antipsychotics like Haldol and Thorazine. More importantly, they lacked the most noxious side effects of the older drugs - in particular, the tremors and other motor control problems.

The atypical anti-psychotics were the bright new stars in the pharmaceutical industry's roster of psychotropic drugs - costly, patented medications that made people feel and behave better without any shaking or drooling. Sales grew steadily, until by 2009 Seroquel and Abilify  numbered fifth and sixth in annual drug sales, and prescriptions written for the top three atypical antipsychotics totaled more than 20 million.  Suddenly, antipsychotics weren't just for psychotics any more.

Not just for psychotics anymore

By now, just about everyone knows how the drug industry works to influence the minds of American doctors, plying them with gifts, junkets, ego-tripping awards, and research funding in exchange for endorsing or prescribing the latest and most lucrative drugs. "Psychiatrists are particularly targeted by Big Pharma because psychiatric diagnoses are very subjective," says Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman, whose PharmedOut project tracks the industry's influence on American medicine, and who last month hosted a conference on the subject at Georgetown. A shrink can't give you a blood test or an MRI to figure out precisely what's wrong with you. So it's often a case of diagnosis by prescription. (If you feel better after you take an anti-depressant, it's assumed that you were depressed.) As the researchers in one study of the drug industry's influence put it, "the lack of biological tests for mental disorders renders psychiatry especially vulnerable to industry influence." For this reason, they argue, it's particularly important that the guidelines for diagnosing and treating mental illness be compiled "on the basis of an objective review of the scientific evidence" - and  not on whether the doctors writing them got a big grant from Merck or own stock in AstraZeneca.

Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and a leading critic of the Big Pharma, puts it more bluntly: "Psychiatrists are in the pocket of industry." Angell has pointed out that most of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the bible of mental health clinicians, have  ties to the drug industry. Likewise, a 2009 study showed that 18 out of 20 of the shrinks who wrote the American Psychiatric Association's most recent clinical guidelines for treating depression, bipolar disorders, and schizophrenia had financial ties to drug companies.

 
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