The New Yorker
Originally posted May 20, 2019
Here is an excerpt:
Yet, despite the phenomenal success of Prozac, and of other SSRIs, no one has been able to produce definitive experimental proof establishing neurochemical imbalances as the pathogenesis of mental illness. Indeed, quite a lot of evidence calls the assumption into question. Clinical trials have stirred up intense controversy about whether antidepressants greatly outperform the placebo effect. And, while SSRIs do boost serotonin, it doesn’t appear that people with depression have unusually low serotonin levels. What’s more, advances in psychopharmacology have been incremental at best; Harrington quotes the eminent psychiatrist Steven Hyman’s assessment that “no new drug targets or therapeutic mechanisms of real significance have been developed for more than four decades.” This doesn’t mean that the available psychiatric medication isn’t beneficial. But some drugs seem to work well for some people and not others, and a patient who gets no benefit from one may do well on another. For a psychiatrist, writing a prescription remains as much an art as a science.
Harrington’s book closes on a sombre note. In America, the final decade of the twentieth century was declared the Decade of the Brain. But, in 2010, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health reflected that the initiative hadn’t produced any marked increase in rates of recovery from mental illness. Harrington calls for an end to triumphalist claims and urges a willingness to acknowledge what we don’t know.
Although psychiatry has yet to find the pathogenesis of most mental illness, it’s important to remember that medical treatment is often beneficial even when pathogenesis remains unknown. After all, what I was taught about peptic ulcers and stress wasn’t entirely useless; though we now know that stress doesn’t cause ulcers, it can exacerbate their symptoms. Even in instances where the discovery of pathogenesis has produced medical successes, it has often worked in tandem with other factors. Without the discovery of H.I.V. we would not have antiretroviral drugs, and yet the halt in the spread of the disease owes much to simple innovations, such as safe-sex education and the distribution of free needles and condoms.
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