As Robert Whitaker pointed out in Anatomy of an Epidemic, biological psychiatric “treatment” of depression has had disastrous long-term consequences as evidenced by steadily rising rates of severe depression, disability from depression, and suicide, since the 1990s. But is it antidepressants themselves that caused this? Antidepressants were proven to usually work only via the placebo effect1. So wouldn’t it be illogical to suggest that although any mood improvement they produce is not from an actual chemical effect, any mood worsening that users experience is from a direct chemical effect? And isn’t blaming the worsening of antidepressant users on chemical imbalances caused by these drugs similar to blaming depression on chemical imbalances in the first place?
This theory may thus inadvertently/needlessly encourage clients to continue blaming sadness on ‘bad chemicals,’ when there’s a more obvious explanation for the worsening:
Doctors (and friends, family, therapists, government agencies, television commercials) instill confidence that antidepressants will fix a person’s “chemical imbalance,” so they do, at first. In fact, just as some people are thereby tricked into feeling happy, other people are probably tricked into feeling too happy (manicky). But fooling a person into thinking they’ve found a quick solution to all their troubles in a pill fakes them out — these placebo benefits can’t last, since the real issues that are saddening them are still there. When this benefit fade occurs, they can crash from their high, and the higher the high, the lower the crash. Hyping placebos to be miracle pills thus builds up false hopes, which sets a person up for big letdowns that can lead to suicide.
When this occurs, antidepressant users may realize that “depression is a medically treatable disease” is a lie, and may drop out to instead explore and work on their underlying issues. If they do return to the psychiatrist, they’ll be urged to try another antidepressant. But this same cycle will repeat itself with every new “wonder drug” tried — each time reality sets back in. This is why a 2004 depressionforums.org survey found that a third of respondents had tried at least 9 different antidepressants (nearly all of them), but only 6% needed just one. Due to wasting all their time and effort on futile attempts to fix fake chemical imbalances instead of addressing their real issues (since there supposedly are none), their issues will persist and build up. This will lead to their becoming increasingly demoralized, hopeless, and potentially suicidal as years go by. So the acceptance of “having depression,” especially by people who are still young and thus have plenty of time to make changes and are flexible enough to make them, not only worsens their depression in the long run, but also wastes their life potential. They have been faked out by placebos yet again.
The final fakeout is the reverse-placebo effect: People get locked into continuing biological psychiatric treatment indefinitely, because faith in the “chemical imbalance” myth is so ingrained into their psyche and their culture’s psyche, and everyone is warning them that they will fall apart if they stop “treatment” for their “illness,” that they doubt they can ever cope without their pills. This ensures that they will fail to cope.
Instead of the focus of medical model-accepting clients being on the problems that depress them, their focus is on their depression. Biological psychiatry dissuades people from facing or working on the issues upsetting them. They are instead encouraged to deny these issues and wait for doctors to ‘cure their illness’ (suppress their feelings) for them.
Lately I’ve often had conversations with clients that go like this:
Client: “I am depressed.”
Dr. K: “About what?”
Client: “Nothing is wrong in my life. I just get sad for no reason. I think it’s chemical.”
Yet in order to feel an emotion, we must on some level perceive the event that triggered that emotion. For example, the anticipation of danger elicits anxiety, having one’s desires frustrated produces anger,and the experiencing of loss, disappointment, grief, rejection, isolation, failure to reach goals, etc. causes sadness
Family and friends who accept the “brain disease” lie will be less likely to listen and understand their underlying issues, wrongly thinking that there are none. Instead, they’ll also focus on seeking nonexistent medical cures. Even if clients see therapists in addition to doctors, the focus of the therapy may be to help them cope with their ‘depressive illness,’ rather than to acknowledge their issues and address them. And if psychiatric clients are aware of underlying feelings such as worthlessness, guilt, or failure, their doctors will likely urge them to dismiss such thoughts as invalid, since they are merely “symptoms of their illness.”
Such clients, having developed a habit of coping with problems via chemicals, and having thus worsened over time, will thus be vulnerable to turning to opioid pills, since they can initially resolve emotional as well as physical pain. These will also be easy to get, since they are often prescribed by the same doctor giving all the different antidepressants. At times they may experience emotional pain as physical, enabling them to feel the opioids are warranted. This likely partially explains why people in psychiatric treatment, despite comprising only 16% of the population, use more than half of all opiate pain relievers2. In fact, most people on pain pills also take antidepressants3. This is partly because agonizing opiate withdrawals, in turn, make people depressed. What a goldmine for modern healthcare!
In these ways, the widespread acceptance of sad feelings being biological diseases is not only the likely main cause of our depression epidemic, but has likely also contributed to the rise in opiate overdoses, as well as the rise in benzodiazepine overdoses (these addictive pills are also often added to the “cocktails” used for ”refractory depression”). I thus urge that we focus on dispelling the deadly “biologically-caused mental illness” myth, as its cultural indoctrination is likely a major cause of most of our current epidemics. Even though psychiatry’s other drugs (sedatives/addictive drugs, its only other tools) directly cause great harm, it is unlikely that antidepressants directly cause as much harm, since they are just placebos. It is thus unlikely that they themselves caused the epidemics. And shifting blame for sad feelings from ‘genetic brain illness’ to ‘drug-induced brain illness’ will still prevent people from taking active responsibility to explore their own issues in order to address and resolve their own problems, as people used to do before the medical model.
I don’t want readers to think that I am excusing doctors who lie in saying that antidepressants truly work so they can take advantage of clients’ trust in order to build up their clients’ false hopes (and their own caseloads). To the contrary, I hold them responsible for ruining many lives, and contributing to thousands of suicides and overdoses. When a pharmacist sold fake cancer drugs and lied about it to clients, he was jailed for 30 years. Why are psychiatrists not being held accountable? It is likely because it’s mistakenly assumed that since psychiatry doesn’t treat real illness, faking out clients with placebos must be harmless.
- Kirsch, I. The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth, 2010, Basic Books ↩
- Davis, M, et al. “Prescription Opioid Use Among Adults with Mental Health Disorders.” J Am Board Fam Medicine, June 2017 ↩
- Gatchel, R, et al. “Etiology of Chronic Pain and Mental Illness: How to Assess Both.” Pract Pain Management, Nov 2011, 11, 9 ↩
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.