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Monday, April 22, 2019

Psychiatry’s Incurable Hubris

Gary Greenberg
The Atlantic
April 2019 issue

Here is an excerpt:

The need to dispel widespread public doubt haunts another debacle that Harrington chronicles: the rise of the “chemical imbalance” theory of mental illness, especially depression. The idea was first advanced in the early 1950s, after scientists demonstrated the principles of chemical neurotransmission; it was supported by the discovery that consciousness-altering drugs such as LSD targeted serotonin and other neurotransmitters. The idea exploded into public view in the 1990s with the advent of direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs, antidepressants in particular. Harrington documents ad campaigns for Prozac and Zoloft that assured wary customers the new medications were not simply treating patients’ symptoms by altering their consciousness, as recreational drugs might. Instead, the medications were billed as repairing an underlying biological problem.

The strategy worked brilliantly in the marketplace. But there was a catch. “Ironically, just as the public was embracing the ‘serotonin imbalance’ theory of depression,” Harrington writes, “researchers were forming a new consensus” about the idea behind that theory: It was “deeply flawed and probably outright wrong.” Stymied, drug companies have for now abandoned attempts to find new treatments for mental illness, continuing to peddle the old ones with the same claims. And the news has yet to reach, or at any rate affect, consumers. At last count, more than 12 percent of Americans ages 12 and older were taking antidepressants. The chemical-imbalance theory, like the revamped DSM, may fail as science, but as rhetoric it has turned out to be a wild success.

The info is here.

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