There’s a few different things going on here, so let’s try to break them down.
The first thing to mention is the ‘placebo’ effect. In his book ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, researcher Irvin Kirsch blew the lid off the SSRI claims that they were more effective than a placebo. The long and short of it is, they aren’t, and even when they do work, they come along with a huge number of very unpleasant side affects (more on this later.)
To put it another way, the power of the mind is so great that if someone with a mental illness (or other physical disease) believes that the drug they’ve been given is going to cure them, then very often it will – regardless of its innate therapeutic properties.
To quote Kirsch:
“Even the small percentage [16%] of people who ‘respond’ only to the real antidepressant do not get much chemical benefit from the medication. Most of their improvement can be explained as a placebo effect.”
So that’s one issue – but it’s not even the main one.
Even if we assume that there is some truth to the idea that the mood-altering drugs prescribed by psychiatrists work, at least for some of the people, some of the time, as you’re probably coming to expect, there’s a lot more to the story, and it’s by no means so clear-cut or encouraging.
In his book ‘Anatomy of an epidemic’, investigative journalist Robert Whitaker spent a couple of years trawling through all of the scientific studies that measured the efficacy of mood-altering drugs like Thorazine, Lithium, SSRIs, and benzodiazepines over the long term. Time and again, he found the following pattern:
- Many of the drugs appeared to work in the very short-term, providing some immediate relief to patients.
- Over the long-term, the outcomes for patients maintained on drugs (both in terms of mental health, physical health and economic independence and quality of life) became increasingly worse than the outcomes for their ‘drug-free’ peers.
- Use of the drugs fundamentally (and in many cases, permanently) changed the way the brain functions, causing a ‘pathology’, where the brain ceased functioning in a normal, healthy way.
- The drug-induced change in the brain’s chemistry meant that as soon as the patient came off the drug, they would experience some severe and violent side-affects, which were normally chalked up as being due to a ‘relapse’ in their mental illness, as opposed to iatrogenically-induced withdrawal symptoms from the drugs.
I highly recommend that readers pick up a copy of Whitaker’s book for themselves, which clearly sets out the scientific proof and chemical processes that are underpinning all the information I’m giving you in this post.
In the meantime, let me just tell you about researcher Martin Harrow’s 15 year schizophrenia study. Schizophrenia has traditionally been thought of as the most difficult of all mental illnesses to successfully treat. In Harrow’s study, he followed four groups of people:
- Schizophrenics who were using medication.
- Schizophrenics who were not using medication.
- Manic-depressives who were using medication.
- Manic-depressives who were not using medication.
Harrow found that: “Over the long term, the manic-depressive patients who stopped taking psychiatric drugs fared pretty well, but their recovery took time” [i.e., normally a couple of years to really get over and turn their life around again]. But by the end of the 15 year long study, they were officially ‘recovered’ from their illness.
By contrast: “At the end of two years, [the manic-depressive patients who stayed on their meds] were now a little bit worse than the schizophrenia patients off meds” – and over the next 15 years, their illness, outcomes and quality of life continued to deteriorate.
At the end of 15 years, Harrow’s study showed that both the unmedicated groups continued to do significantly better than their medicated peers, with medicated manic-depressives experiencing worse outcomes than non-medicated schizophrenics.
So you can sum up the ‘psychiatric drugs work!’ argument like this: Like all drugs, there’s an initial benefit to using them, but this quickly evaporates, with patients’ mental health issues and symptoms actually worsening over the long term, making it harder and harder for them to function normally, hold down jobs, or forge relationships.
But that’s not all: the life expectancy of people regularly using psychiatric medication is between 15-20 years shorter than normal – and the number of physical illnesses and problems they experience before their premature death (affectionately known as ‘side affects’) is often enormous.
It’s not a secret that drugs, even prescription drugs, carry huge drawbacks. The question has always been one of ensuring that the potential benefit to the patient outweighs the potential cost. And who are the ones who are meant to be ensuring the globally positive, ethical nature of the treatments and medications they prescribe? The medical profession and psychiatrists.
Which is where the tale starts to get extremely murky, indeed, as we’ll cover in the next post.