A scientific revolution transformed medical care in the second half of the twentieth century. Developments in molecular biology, genetics and other fields resulted in new insights into many diseases, and from this, more effective treatments. More recently this revolution, which began in the laboratory, has transferred to the clinic, as evidence-based medicine (EBM) has introduced scientific principles into day-to-day clinical decision-making. Not wanting to be left behind, anxious to prove to the world that it was as scientific and rigorous as the rest of medicine, psychiatry too fell under the spell of this revolution. As a result a technical model has come to replace what was once called the medical model.
It is a technical model in the sense that interventions for distress are no longer restricted to medical treatments, like drugs based in biological theories of disease (Thomas et al, 2012). Psychological interventions like cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) have taken their place alongside medical interventions. A core feature of the technical model, whether medical or psychological, is the idea that these interventions are effective because they rectify specific faults in brain, or psychological, function. These faults in turn are believed to cause the distress that characterises psychiatric disorders. For example, experiences such as hearing voices or unusual beliefs are believed to be caused by over-activity in dopamine systems in specific areas of the brain. Neuroleptic drugs are thought to be effective because they reduce this over-activity. The fact that no evidence of dopamine over-activity has ever been found in the brains of people diagnosed with schizophrenia is neither here nor there, at least as far as justifying the use of these drugs is concerned. This is because the pharmaceutical industry became adept at manipulating drug trial data so as to convince everyone that these drugs were effective (Spielmans & Parry, 2009). As long as everyone ignored such deceit, or pretended it did not happen, a lack of scientific evidence to support the underlying model at work didn’t really matter. The evidence suggested that the drugs were effective, so what. However, the introduction of EBM in psychiatry has achieved something of great importance. It has drawn attention to the fact that these drugs do not work. In part this is because of the poor quality of the evidence used to justify the use of psychiatric drugs.
Concern about the poor quality of evidence for the use of neuroleptics in schizophrenia has been around for some time. Fifteen years ago a survey of the first 2000 trials of these drugs held on the Cochrane Schizophrenia Group’s register found that studies were too short (on average less than six weeks), contained too few patients (on average just 65), and were poorly reported (Thornley & Adams, 1998). Since then the situation has deteriorated. Recent evidence questions the quality of neuroleptic trials in schizophrenia, their effectiveness in the short-term (Bola 2006; 2012) and long-term (Harrow et al, 2012) management of the condition (see Robert Whittaker’s recent blog). Indeed, the evidence suggests that contrary to improving the prognosis of schizophrenia, the use of long-term neuroleptic drugs may actually make this worse (Baldessarini & Viguera, 1995; Viguera et al, 1997; Harrow et al, 2012). There is doubt, too, about the benefits of so-called second-generation (SG) neuroleptics over the first-generation (FG) drugs (Girgis et al 2011; Jones et al, 2006; Lieberman et al, 2005). A recent meta-analysis of 150 trials has confirmed the absence of consistent differences between SG and FG neuroleptics (Leucht et al, 2009).
Clozapine, the original ‘SG’ neuroleptic was withdrawn from use in 1975 after six patients died in Finland from agranulocytosis, a severe blood disorder. However, because laboratory studies found that clozapine’s apparent clinical potency did not correlate with its effect in blocking dopamine D2 receptors, and because it appeared to cause fewer neurological side effects, the argument gained ground that the drug had different mode of action from FG drugs, hence the adjective ‘atypical’. The revival of clozapine, together with the idea of ‘atypicality’ was born partly out of a hope that it would generate new pharmacological models of schizophrenia (Kerwin, 1995), and new drugs with less severe neurological side-effects. Thus the drug was re-introduced in Britain for the treatment of ‘treatment-resistant schizophrenia’ in 1990.
However, in a recent editorial in the British Journal of Psychiatry, Kendall (2011) writes as follows:
Where is the evidence that there is a unifying chemical structure for, or a clinically important difference in, the efficacy or effectiveness of ‘neuroleptics’, ‘major tranquillisers’, and ‘conventional’, ‘typical’, ‘atypical’, ‘first-generation’ and ‘second-generation’ antipsychotics? Is the ever changing terminology part of the fog generated by pharmaceutical companies to increase profits by the simple equation that ‘new is better’?
(Kendall, 2011: 266, emphasis added)
Professor Kendall is the director of the National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health at the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Through the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) he is responsible for developing clinical practice guidelines for the National Health Service in England and Wales. The accumulating evidence that neuroleptic drugs are at best of limited value, and at worst cause long-term harm, have taken the wind out of the sails of the technical revolution in psychiatry. There is no place in the theory and practice of psychiatry for a discredited technical paradigm, grounded in naïve positivism and reductionism, and the morally bankrupt scientism peddled by the pharmaceutical industry. This is not a scientific revolution; it is a revolution of deceit.
So where do we go from here? One way forward is Joanna Moncrieff’s distinction between the disease-centred and drug centred model of how psychiatric drugs might be helpful for people who experience distress (Moncrieff, 2008). The disease-centred model, which can be seen as one version of the technical paradigm, maintains that drugs rectify specific abnormalities of brain function that are believed to be responsible for the experiences (symptoms, within this model) of psychiatric disorder. The therapeutic effects are assumed to relate to effects on abnormal brain states. The failure of this model is in part due to the fact that there is no convincing evidence that abnormal brain states cause the experiences of madness, at least not in the way that neuroscientific psychiatry currently believes.
The drug-centred model holds that psychiatric drugs cause abnormal brain states, and that any therapeutic benefits relate to impact of abnormal brain states on subjective experience. In other words they bring about a state of intoxication. An example of this is the use of alcohol to control social or other forms of anxiety. The drug-centred model has two advantages. First it uncouples the use of psychiatric drugs from unwarranted theories about how they might work. This opens up the way to a more participatory person-centred approach to using medication, what Joanna Moncrieff calls democratic drug treatment. Second, it is theory neutral as far as science is concerned, and this offers an opportunity to rethink what effects these drugs have on the mind/brain.
There is, however, an outstanding problem that any putative model of drug action must engage with, and that it is the potency of the placebo effect in psychiatry. Placebos, dummy tablets or injections, have been known to be effective in a wide range of conditions for many centuries. This suggests that the effectiveness of treatment in many areas of medicine, especially psychiatry, cannot be accounted for simply in terms of the biological properties of drugs. No matter how we, as psychiatrists or doctors, think that drugs work in biological terms, the use of medication must also be understood in human terms. As the medical anthropologist Daniel Moerman points out (2002) the placebo effect is a multi-layered phenomenon that stands at the interface between culture, biology, and the individual’s need for hope and meaning in the face of suffering and uncertainty. Whatever science follows in the wake of the revolution of deceit, if it is to be of clinical value in the practice of psychiatry, it has to find a way of engaging with the embodied complexity of the placebo response.
Baldessarini, R.J. & Viguera, A.C. (1995) Neuroleptic withdrawal in schizophrenic patients. Commentary in Archives of General Psychiatry, 52, 189 – 192.
Bola, J. (2006) Medication-Free Research in Early Episode Schizophrenia: Evidence of Long-Term Harm? Schizophrenia Bulletin 32, 2, 288–296.
Bola, J., Kao, D., & Haluk, S. (2012) Antipsychotic Medication for Early-Episode Schizophrenia Schizophrenia Bulletin, 38, 1, 23–25,
Harrow, M., Jobe, T. & Faull, R. (2012) Do all schizophrenia patients need antipsychotic treatment continuously throughout their life time? A 20-year longitudinal study. Psychological Medicine published online, 17 February 2012. Accessed at CJO 2012 doi:10.1017/S0033291712000220 28th February 2012.
Girgis RR, Phillips MR, Li X, Li K, Jiang H, Wu C, et al. (2011) Clozapine v. chlorpromazine in treatment-naive, first-episode schizophrenia: 9-year randomised clinical trial. British Journal of Psychiatry; 199: 281–8.
Jones PB, Barnes TRE, Davies L, Dunn G, Lloyd H, Hayhurst KP, et al. (2006) Randomized controlled trial of the effect on quality of life of second- vs first-generation antipsychotic drugs in schizophrenia: Cost Utility of the LatestAntipsychotic drugs in Schizophrenia Study (CUtLASS 1). Archives of General Psychiatry; 63: 1079–87.
Kendall, T. (2011) The rise and fall of the atypical antipsychotics. British Journal of Pychiatry, 199, 266–268.
Kerwin, R. (1995) Clozapine: back to the future for schizophrenia research. Lancet; 345: 1063–4.
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Moncrieff, J. (2008) The Myth of the Chemical Cure: A Critique of Psychiatric Drug Treatment. Basingstoke, Palgrave
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Viguera, A., Baldessarini, R., Hegarty, J., van Kammen, D. & Tohen, M. (1997) Clinical risk following abrupt and gradual withdrawal of maintenance neuroleptic treatment. Arch Gen Psychiatry 54, 49-55.
The “maintenance” model: that word really gives the game away, doesn’t it? We have to keep them on medication: no hint of curing them. Long, long ago, before the NHS was set up in the UK – don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to see NHS abolished! – some doctors, (who took the radical step of thinking for themselves instead of the modern practice of getting brownie points for persuading patients to take statins, have their cholesterol checked, etc, in the process claiming premiums from the government for so doing) actually embraced the idea of “preventative” medicine, encouraging the local population to eat healthily and take exercise. The free fitness centre they set up in London is now a block of luxury flats. Progress, no doubt?
I’d like to see us tackle the root causes of mental “disorder” (another loaded word!). We could start by examining the social / environmental factors triggering these behaviours: those who react with sensitivity should no longer be perceived as weak and in need of medication, but producing a perfectly logical, rational reaction to an irrational situation. (R.D.Laing) It is those who have neither the capacity to feel nor to think for themselves who really do need help.
Thanks for this, John. I fully agree with you. Even a brief examination of the history of medicine suggests that public health (i.e. preventative) medicine has saved more lives than technological medicine. Think of the hundreds of thousands of deaths in the great cholera outbreaks in England in the nineteenth century. Sanitation and clean water brought these deaths to an end fifty years before the development of the cholera vaccine. The problem of primary prevention in psychiatry is a political one – to what extent are governments genuinely committed to tackling the social and environmental contexts that give rise to oppression, distress and madness?
Posts like this from such brave, honest doctors like Dr. Thomas give me much hope that the evil bogus medical model of psychiatry with its fraud life destroying labels from the junk science/pseudoscience DSM to push/force poisons with the pretense of medicine in bed with BIG PHARMA on vulnerable people experiencing great emotional distress, abuse/”war” related trauma (including all combat zones like homes, work places and other war fronts)and great life stressors or crises will be exposed for the criminal enterprise that it is and put out of business.
In the past, only a handful of psychiatrists like Dr. Peter Breggin worked hard and endured great hardship to expose the fraud and crimes of the mental death profession bought out by BIG PHARMA enabled by corrupt government and academic hacks. The more such doctors speak out to expose these emperors have been wearing no clothes all along as they destroyed countless lives, it will be harder for these despicable psychopathic malignant narcissists to keep destroying innocent hurting people with impunity.
Posts like this are the answer to my long term prayers for the ultimate death of psychiatry serving as SS thugs for an increasing totalitarian dictatorship only serving the needs of the corporate plutocracy while making those they harm and cause to suffer their profit centers as they rob them of everything and continue to rape the planet of all its resources.
Thanks for your comments, Donna. I agree with your view of Peter Breggin, who has been courageously making these arguments for many years. Interestingly, I think that at long last even the more ‘traditional’ areas of the profession are beginning to realise that they’ve been duped. At least in England they are. Tim Kendall is an influential mainstream figure in British psychiatry. It’s good to see that people like him are speaking in a more forthright manner about the disgraceful way in which pharma has acted over the years.
‘HOPE. Meaning. if only if only while SUFFERING N UNSERTAIN NON FUTURE. Living in very real terror of real live traumatic event’s that happened my way and my did they bump in to my poor young helpless mind. one trauma after another. Now Psychiatry would label ‘ME’ With all manor of false ideoplgies just to keep themself in a supposedly meaningful job. well Eat your own pill’s doctor MY LIFE IS FOR SAVING”) And your not the cure). Your PROZAC NATION WILL BE YOUR DOWNFALL.
Thanks Paul. Labelling suffering as illness, when the suffering originates in trauma and other forms of oppression, such as the experiences of racism, is morally indefensible. Some of us in England are about to launch a big web-based survey about this very issue – we want to find out about people’s experiences of the schizophrenia label. As soon as the web site goes live. I’ll post a blog about it.
In many ways I feel that I don’t belong here in that the chief focus seems to be on psychosis, hearing voices, delusions and other behaviors labelled as schizophrenia. If you read the literature, psychiatry isn’t even pretending their lethal drugs are treating any illness now in many cases like children and the elderly, but rather they have gotten atypical antipsychotics approved for treating so called aggressive and other behaviors that challenge/annoy authority in any way. This includes people with NO so called mental illness though some may be stigmatized with the latest fraud fad garbage can diagnosis bipolar to justify the poison drugs in many cases. Further even those acknowledged to have trauma like combat veterans are getting the same lethal poisons, so it is a no win. Domestic violence child and women victims as well as those subjected to work, school and other bullying, mobbing psychological terror and trauma are also blamed and stigmatized so they can be drugged into submission while the mental death profession colludes with the abusers to further destroy the victims. None of the people subjected to such horrific betrayals by psychiatry are crazy, delusional, psychotic or irrational in any way though psychiatrists often say they are per Dr. Carole Warshaw, so though I realize that those who have had symptoms that were labelled schizophrenia due to psychosis have huge challenges that must be addressed, I would like to see this site also deal with those FALSELY ACCUSED of being crazy due to immense emotional distress, physical stress symptoms/illness and other normal reactions to common forms of traumatic abuse.
I see you’ve cited the Spielmans & Parry paper. You should be aware that at least some of the information in that paper was made up, which calls into question the reliability of the rest of the paper. When challenged to correct the article, although Spielmans & Parry themselves displayed a reasonable attitude, the journal that published it took an attitude that was rather odd. The paper remains uncorrected. You can read a detailed account of what happened here: