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Anatomy of an Epidemic

Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America

By Robert Whitaker
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Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker

Anatomy of an Epidemic (2010) traces the development of mental health medications and the relationship between pharmaceutical companies and the field of psychiatry. These blinks bust the myths we’re told about such drugs, and, in the process, may make you question the wisdom of fighting psychological ills with a panoply of pills.

Key idea 1 of 8

Popular psychiatric medicines were introduced without proper testing.

It’s more than likely that you or someone you know takes a prescription medicine for emotional or psychiatric reasons.

The statistics paint a pretty clear picture:

One out of every eight Americans takes psychiatric medication – including children and infants.

This wasn’t always the case: between 1985 and 2008, the yearly sales of antidepressants and antipsychotics in the United States increased nearly fiftyfold, eventually reaching a whopping $24.2 billion.

That’s big business today, but to trace this phenomenon back to its beginning, we need to look at how such drugs were introduced.

Today, psychoactive drugs are used to treat conditions such as anxiety, depression and mania. But that wasn’t their intended purpose. Originally, doctors were looking for so-called “magic bullets,” or miracle cures, to fight infectious diseases. But in this search they inadvertently invented something else.

In the post-World War II era, between 1954 and 1957, researchers stumbled upon different compounds that affected the central nervous system. While testing the efficacy of these drugs against disease, the researchers found that some of them could dramatically curb a person’s normal physical and emotional responses without causing a loss of consciousness.

This isn’t how drugs are normally developed. Usually, research is devoted to finding a cause for an ailment, followed by the development of a medication that will cure the effects of that ailment.

This is how insulin therapy was developed, once research showed that diabetes was caused by insulin deficiency.

But since the new psychoactive drugs weren’t designed with any particular ailment in mind, they weren’t tested well before going to market.

The pharmaceutical company Smith, Kline & French tested its new mental illness magic bullet, Thorazine, on less than 150 psychiatric patients before applying for FDA approval. The company’s president nevertheless claimed that Thorazine had been thoroughly tested on over 5,000 animals and had “proved active and safe for human administration.”

In 1954, it was put on the US market and advertised as a treatment for schizophrenia, anxiety and bipolar disorder.

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