The Antidepressant Era was written in 1995, and first published in 1997. A paperback came out in 1999. It was close to universally welcomed (see reviews 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 ). It was favorably received by reviewers from the pharmaceutical industry, perhaps because it made clear that this branch of medical history had not been shaped by great men or great institutions but that other players, company people, had been at least as important.
Nobody objected to it, perhaps because at this point I had not agreed to be an expert witness in a pharmaceutical induced injury case. There were likely no PR companies who had a brief to manage Healy. I knew before The Creation of Psychopharmacology came out in 2002 that the response to it would be very different.
Many of the ideas in The Antidepressant Era had appeared earlier. The idea that a lowering of serotonin (chapter 5) was a marketing myth and had nothing to do with science, first appeared in my doctoral thesis in 1985, and later in Psychopharmacological Revolutions in 1987. The idea that companies market diseases as a way of marketing medicines (chapter 6) first appeared in 1990 in Notes toward a History and The Marketing of 5HT.
The Antidepressant Era in turn contained many of the elements of Pharmageddon – the key role of the 1962 amendments to the Food and Drugs Act which, through product patents, prescription-only status for new drugs and the role of clinical trials, have created modern healthcare.
In 2000 I was approached by Duncan Dallas, an independent television producer from Leeds who wanted to do something critical on the antidepressants. Prozac was still at this point widely seen as a miracle of modern medicine, rather than an inferior drug to older antidepressants. Bioethicists and social scientists were still lining up to herald the creation of the New Man through modern genetics and modern psychotropic drugs.
Saying that what we were witnessing was a triumph of modern marketing rather than modern science caused a frisson in most circles. There were no natural allies – not in psychopharmacology or biological psychiatry but not in social science circles either.
But this is what Duncan wanted. The Antidepressant Era, the movie, opens with some of the hype around SSRIs, has astonishing footage of Roland Kuhn and Alan Broadhurst, two of the key people behind the discovery of imipramine, and outlines the overthrow of the benzodiazepines and their replacement by antidepressants.
It shows how rating scales and screening are used in psychiatry to create problems for which a drug becomes the answer. It was the first program to wheel on stage the marketing men who created the social anxiety campaigns that sold Paxil, and it outlined the role of DSM III in the creation of depression.
Duncan’s version has a wonderful artistry. The book opens with a quote from George Oppen’s The Skyscraper. The “movie” closes with the same quote.
The steelworker on the girder Learned not to look down, and does his work And there are words we have learned Not to look at, Not to look for substance Below them. But we are on the verge Of Vertigo.
There are words that mean nothing But there is something to mean. Not a declaration which is truth But a thing Which is ..
Oh, the tree, growing from the sidewalk – It has a little life, sprouting Little green buds Into the culture of the streets. We look back Three hundred years and see bare land. And suffer vertigo.
Its central moment is an astonishing sequence featuring the then President of Hoffman-la-Roche, Adolf Jann, embarking on a rant that looks now like an uncanny forerunner of the famous Adolf Hitler rant in the movie Downfall. The rant that launched a thousand You-Tubes. Adolf Jahn thumps his fist on the table, voice rising, as he angrily tells an interviewer in effect “You – none of you – can do without us – just try”. See section at 20 minutes 50 seconds to 22 minutes.
There is nothing specific to Jann or Roche here. This was and is the common credo of the pharmaceutical industry. This is what the CEOs of GSK, Pfizer, Merck and Lilly are saying to governments today. Healthcare is not sustainable unless we develop drugs that get people well so they aren’t a burden on the State, and if healthcare is not sustainable democracy may not be either. Facilitate us or society as you know it goes down the drain.
It would be a mistake to see this as a horrible modern manifestation of rapacious capitalism. Socialists from George Bernard Shaw in the early twentieth century onwards have turned to biology as an answer to social problems. If we cannot get mankind to agree to change for the better, perhaps we can improve on mankind. This belief powered the efforts of governments to eliminate the unfit from the late nineteenth century through to the eugenics movement and underpins some of our hopes for the New Genetics.
Eugenics looks terrible in retrospect while modern genetics looks like our only hope – but the same impulse underpins both. There is no better example of what good history is about than this. Anyone writing the history of eugenics should really portray its prime movers in the same light as we now portray the heroes of the the Human Genome Project.
We should always remember that the nominees for the 1937 Nobel Peace Prize included both Gandhi and Hitler. There was a time when one looked at least as likely as the other to contribute to modern civilization.
The same dynamic made Valium look like a very dark drug in 2000 – so that even its name was withdrawn. Prozac in contrast looked like the gateway to the hoped for shiny uplands of the future, when by the mid-1990s Prozac should have been seen as a far darker drug than Valium.
Valium entered a world in which psychiatry in many ways led medicine as it had done for almost a hundred years. Psychiatry was the first branch of medicine to have specialist hospitals and specialist journals. And Valium really did work remarkably well. Far from being simply a superficial treatment it likely led to the disappearance of catatonia and saved a lot of lives.
Valium probably did a lot to stimulate the Revolution of 1968. The conventional wisdom now is that Valium was Mother’s Little Helper and in this role that it played a part in the imprisonment of women in suburbia. In fact, Valium and other benzodiazepines undo conditioned avoidance. They were advertised initially as being among other things useful for salesmen – to overcome their inhibitions. They almost certainly disinhibited many women to speak out against patriarchy. They helped students breach the double-binds that Ronnie Laing and others in the 1960s were preaching were holding back society.
Prozac and the SSRIs in contrast far more often produce an apathy that is destructive to engagement in society as Who Cares in Sweden shows. Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Efexor, Pristiq, and Cymbalta are far more likely to lead to suicide and murderous violence including school shootings than Valium ever did. And the SSRIs lead to just as many cases of dependence as the benzos ever did.
Are we incapable of learning? Will we always be seduced by the latest PharMessiah?
The Antidepressant Era, the movie, contains an extraordinary comment on just this that no one could have foreseen when it was finished in 2001. It almost looks like the Scriptwriter in the Sky must have inserted the clip of Adolf Jahn telling us that if we don’t facilitate him and Roche society will collapse. We can only afford to keep our economy and society going if he and his company are let develop new drugs.
Well Roche got to develop Tamiflu. Where Valium was the headline drug in the 1980s for the problems a rampant pharmaceutical industry might pose, Tamiflu is now. Governments throughout the Western world stockpiled billions of dollars worth of Tamiflu on the promise that it would prevent the transmission of influenza and other viruses, and would either keep people in work or get them back to work faster, thus saving our economies huge amounts of money.
Except the drug now appears to be close to worthless and to have always been so. It seems that the impression that Tamiflu might help could only have been created because companies can hide the existence of many and in some cases most of their clinical trials and hide the data from all of them, ghostwriting the ones that are published in a manner that keeps all data out of the public domain.
Facilitate us too much and we will lead to your Downfall.