Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America
by Robert Whitaker
Crown, 404 pp., $26.00
About three-quarters of the way through Robert Whitaker’s expose of the psychiatric drug industry, Anatomy Of An Epidemic, I found myself beginning to worry. Whitaker’s claim is that contrary to what we have been told, psychiatric medications actually cause far more mental illness than they cure. Chapter by chapter, he had built a damning case at which to nod and wince—but now I was neck-deep in the chapter on antidepressants, and I was no longer nodding but reading with concern.
For several years back in my 30s, I had sought desperately for an antidepressant that would “cure” me of my longstanding depression and associated shyness; that would, as psychiatrist and author Peter Kramer infamously wrote in his own book, Listening To Prozac, make me “better than well.” I had tried and flunked not just Prozac, but a half-dozen other antidepressants, often combined with other psychoactive drugs that psychiatrists believed might “potentiate” the antidepressant effect: lithium, synthetic thyroid, speed (Dexedrine), an anti-narcolepsy drug (Provigil), bromocriptine, naltrexone, Depakote, amantadine. None of these drugs or drug combinations ever succeeded in doing much more than ruin my sleep, and I had long ago given up the quest for a magic bullet in favor of the quieter avenues of talk therapy. Yet now I found myself wondering: in those few years of drug experimentation, had I inadvertently made myself more rather than less vulnerable to future bouts of depression? Had I in fact damaged my brain, as the studies cited in the chapter I was now reading implied was a very real possibility?
I’ll most likely never know. And in fact, I’m not all that worried. The greatest danger of brain damage, the book asserts, is for persons who are “maintained” by their doctors not just intermittently, but continuously for many years on antidepressants or other psychiatric medications. The conventional wisdom is that maintenance in this manner helps prevent relapse back into depression—or back into schizophrenia, if one is taking antipsychotics; or back into anxiety, if one is taking an “antianxiety” medication such as Xanax. After reading Anatomy Of An Epidemic, I am thankful that I am not being maintained in this manner. I do not have to worry if the antidepressant I am taking every day is accelerating cell death in the hippocampus, an area of the brain important for mood and memory; or if the antipsychotic I am taking is causing my frontal lobes to shrink, eventually giving me what amounts to a drug-induced lobotomy; or if my antianxiety medication is destroying brain receptors in such a way as to possibly make my anxiety symptoms permanent.