The Marketing of Mental Illness: Drug Profits Soar

by | Jul 1, 2011

A half a decade ago, mental illness was relatively rare, found mostly in mental institutions or out-patient clinics, not in the mainstream. A radically different scene exists today. Millions of school children, previously considered bored or unruly, are now considered to have a “disorder” and heavily medicated along with surprisingly high percentages of foster children, juvenile offenders, adult prisoners, soldiers, and elders in nursing homes. As well, a significant portion of the mainstream populace now turns to “meds” to solve battles with frustration, social shyness, learning difficulties, emotional ups and downs of life, etc. — struggles which, if confronted and conquered without drugs, might possibly strengthen the character.

Why this soaring trend of “mental illness” taking over society, along with billions of tax dollars to Medicaid and Medicare annually? New York Review of Books asks this very question in their article The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why? by Marcia Angell, covering three books written in 2010 by mental health professionals:
The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exposing the Antidepressant Myth by psychologist, Irving Kirsch;
Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America by psychiatrist, Robert Whitaker; and
Unhinged: The Trouble With Psychiatry — A Doctor’s Revelations About A Profession in Crisis by psychiatrist, Daniel Carlat.
The in-depth review is by Dr. Angell, herself a medical doctor, who is a lecturer in the Department of Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, Editor-in-Chief of the New England Journal of Medicine until 2000, and named by Time magazine, in 1997, as one of the 25 most influential Americans.
In her review, Dr. Angell questions the real reasons behind skyrocketing mental illness:

“What is going on here? Is the prevalence of mental illness really that high and still climbing? Particularly if these disorders are biologically determined and not a result of environmental influences, is it plausible to suppose that such an increase is real? Or are we learning to recognize and diagnose mental disorders that were always there? On the other hand, are we simply expanding the criteria for mental illness so that nearly everyone has one?

“And what about the drugs that are now the mainstay of treatment? Do they work? If they do, shouldn’t we expect the prevalence of mental illness to be declining, not rising?”

She further explains that the authors attack the subject from different viewpoints, but all conclude that the field of mental health is going in the wrong direction:

“The authors emphasize different aspects of the epidemic of mental illness. Kirsch…is concerned with whether antidepressants work. Whitaker…takes on the entire spectrum of mental illness and asks whether psychoactive drugs create worse problems than they solve. Carlat … looks mainly at how his profession has allied itself with, and is manipulated by, the pharmaceutical industry. But despite their differences, all three are in remarkable agreement on some important matters, and they have documented their views well.

“First, they agree on the disturbing extent to which the companies that sell psychoactive drugs—through various forms of marketing, both legal and illegal, and what many people would describe as bribery—have come to determine what constitutes a mental illness and how the disorders should be diagnosed and treated…
“Carlat refers to the chemical imbalance theory as a ‘myth’…and Kirsch, whose book focuses on depression, sums up this way: ‘It now seems beyond question that the traditional account of depression as a chemical imbalance in the brain is simply wrong.”

Her article reviews Dr. Kirsch’s discovery of scientifically improper drug trials:

“Altogether, there were forty-two trials of…six drugs. Most of them were negative…Yet because the positive studies were extensively publicized, while the negative ones were hidden, the public and the medical profession came to believe that these drugs were highly effective antidepressants.”

Dr. Angell quotes the third author, Dr. Whitaker, who describes how these drugs cause brain imbalances and greatly damage health, as opposed to curing anything:

“Imagine that a virus suddenly appears in our society that makes people sleep twelve, fourteen hours a day. Those infected with it move about somewhat slowly and seem emotionally disengaged. Many gain huge amounts of weight—twenty, forty, sixty, and even one hundred pounds. Often their blood sugar levels soar, and so do their cholesterol levels. A number of those struck by the mysterious illness—including young children and teenagers—become diabetic in fairly short order….All…neuronal pathways in the brain are compromised…studies find that over a period of several years, the virus shrinks the cerebral cortex [the outer layer of the brain]…and this shrinkage is tied to cognitive [relating to mental activity] decline….Now such an illness has in fact hit millions of American children and adults. We have just described the effects of Eli Lilly’s best-selling antipsychotic, Zyprexa.”

This enlightening article by Dr. Angell summarizing the important issues made in these books help us understand what is really behind this seeming increase in mental illness and its apparent need for drugs, drugs and more drugs. In the end, we may well wonder if the most influential factor behind this whole scene is an ingenious marketing campaign by pharmaceutical companies to create a continually expanding client base and soaring profits.


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