Editor’s Note: Over the next several months, Mad in America is publishing a serialized version of Peter Gøtzsche’s book, Mental Health Survival Kit and Withdrawal from Psychiatric Drugs. In this blog, he explains how psychiatry has reacted when confronted with evidence and stories of lived experience, and how this has corrupted journalism. Each Monday, a new section of the book is published, and all chapters are archived here.
Journalists have told me that the reason Danish public TV doesn’t dare challenge psychiatry or Lundbeck today is due to two programmes sent in April 2013.
I was interviewed for the first programme, “Denmark on pills,” in three parts, where comedian and journalist Anders Stjernholm informed the viewers about depression and ADHD. This was the introduction:32
“In the programme on antidepressants … we shall meet Anne who was prescribed happy pills already when she was 15 years old and today lives with massive side effects. And Jimmy at 53, who, after 4 years on happy pills, has lost his sex drive. Now it turns out that he shouldn’t have had the pills at all. Jimmy was not depressed but suffered from stress. In the programme about ADHD drugs, Anders Stjernholm questions the way in which the diagnosis is made. He meets with the boy Mikkel, who was diagnosed with ADHD by a psychiatrist who had never met him.”
The overall message was that happy pills are dangerous and are prescribed too often. But already the next day, the psychiatric empire struck back. In a magazine for journalists, psychiatry professor Poul Videbech said:33 “It’s a scare campaign that can cost people their lives. I know several examples of suicide after friends and family advised the patient to drop antidepressant medication. Of course, I cannot say for sure that it was because of the media, but as long as the opportunity exists, the media should be very nuanced in their coverage of this topic.”
Videbech compared this with journalists making programmes advising patients with diabetes to drop their insulin. Even though he, at the same time, fiercely denies that he believes in the lie about the chemical imbalance (see Chapter 2). It looks like cognitive dissonance.
Videbech was angry that he had been left out of the programme and complained about it on Facebook and to Danish TV: “It became clear … that they didn’t want real information about these problems—something that the viewers could really benefit from—but instead had picked in advance some views they sought to confirm.” Videbech described how the journalist repeatedly asked him questions according to his own agenda, which was that “antidepressants do not work”; “if they work, they cause suicide”; and “when you stop them, they cause horrible abstinence symptoms.”
Videbech is regarded as a top figure in Danish psychiatry when it comes to depression and he is very often interviewed. This gives him oracle status, which he uses to influence the public agenda and to shape what people think about depression and depression pills. He is not used to being contradicted or bypassed, and this made him angry.
I was the one who documented for Stjernholm that depression pills don’t work; that they increase the risk of suicide; and that patients can get horrible withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop them.
There were many commentaries to the article about Videbech in the magazine. One noted that I was right that the media had been uncritical in their coverage of psychiatric drugs. He pointed out that many people had tried to warn against them for many years but had been silenced or fired from their positions from where they could reach the population.
As already noted, this also happened to me, which I wrote a book about.33 It didn’t affect me economically since I am well off, in contrast to so many others who have been unjustifiably dismissed when they spoke truth to power. I enjoy my work as a full-time researcher, lecturer, writer and independent consultant, e.g. in lawsuits against psychiatrists or drug companies.
Another commentator found it incredibly manipulative that Videbech claimed that people had committed suicide after stopping their drug and had compared this with diabetics needing insulin: “This is a typical example of the rhetoric that has plagued the debate about depression pills for years … Is it reasonable to harm many people to help the few?”
One noted that it was interesting to see that there were virtually no tapering programmes in psychiatry and that it is was solely up to the doctor’s opinion what would happen to the patient. She noted that people often end up on lifelong medication.
One mentioned that she was a member of a large and diverse group of people who had warned for years against the uncritical use of drugs and had spent time on helping the victims, either because they had lost a loved one, had seen the life of a person close to them being destroyed, or had tried it on their own bodies. “BUT!! Every time we open a debate on this topic, we are accused of not thinking about those who benefit from the medicines; we are met with the argument that you [Videbech] also use that we do not care about the victims of the good cause and that our information can have fatal consequences!! For heaven’s sake, how should we get a nuanced debate out of that??? … Almost daily, we are contacted by people, who, also by specialist doctors, are being pressured into taking antidepressants for all kinds of indications. So, something drastic has to happen so that there will be no more victims.”
One wondered why we hear nothing from psychiatry about the suicides and suicide attempts that the drugs cause. “Because it gets dismissed as non-occurring. Nevertheless, it was on the list of side effects in the package insert of the medication I received. AND I felt the impulse on my own body. BUT I was told that it was my depression that was the trigger for suicidal thoughts and plans. The strange thing about that was that the impulse came shortly after I started on the drug … But the conclusion from the doctor and others involved was that my dose should be increased, which I luckily declined and decided to taper off the drug on my own. That people change their personality totally—become aggressive and hot-headed, paranoid, etc., is also dismissed.”
Only four days later, journalist Poul Erik Heilbuth showed his fabulous 70 minutes documentary, “The dark shadow of the pill,” which had already been shown internationally.35 His research was excellent, and he documented in detail how Eli Lilly, GlaxoSmithKline, and Pfizer concealed that their depression pills cause some people to kill themselves or commit murder, or cause completely normal and peaceful people to suddenly start a spree of violent robberies in shops and gas stations they were unable to explain afterwards and were mystified about. The pills changed their personality totally.
About the theory of the chemical imbalance, the background material (no longer available) said: There are very few experts that maintain the theory today. Professor Tim Kendall—the head of the government body that advises all English doctors—calls the theory rubbish and nonsense. Professor Bruno Müller-Oerlinghausen—the leader of the German doctors’ Medicines Commission for 10 years—calls the theory insane and an unreasonable simplification. Both professors say the theory has worked as a pure marketing strategy for companies because they could sell people the perception that their depression has something to do with a chemical imbalance—and that taking a pill can help correct that imbalance. Danes who visit the official Danish health website (written by Danish professors of psychiatry) will see the essence of the theory: Antidepressants affect the amount of chemical messengers in the brain and counteract the chemical imbalance found in depression.
Heilbuth had whistleblower Blair Hamrick in his film, a US salesman from GlaxoSmithKline who said that their catchphrase for paroxetine was that it is the happy, horny, and skinny drug. They told doctors that it will make you happier, you will lose weight, it will make you stop smoking, it will make you increase your libido—everybody should be on this drug. Hamrick secretly copied documents, and GlaxoSmithKline got a fine of $3 billion in 2011 for paying kickbacks to doctors and for illegal marketing of several drugs, including to children.21
An editorial in one of Denmark’s national newspapers, Politiken, condemned the documentary in an unusually hostile fashion, and Heilbuth responded.36 Politiken called his documentary “immensely manipulative,” “sensationalism,” “merely seeking to confirm or verify the thesis that the programme had devised as its premise,” and they called Müller-Oerlinghausen a “muddled thinker.”
The “muddled thinker” gives lectures all over the world, including at a symposium half a year earlier organised by the Danish University Antidepressant Group. He was very clear and well-argued throughout the whole film, and what he said was absolutely correct.
David Healy is the psychiatric professor who has seen the most secret documents in drug company archives, as an expert in lawsuits, and he was also one of the film’s main sources.
Heilbuth told the stories of several people who had killed themselves or others. Just two days after his documentary, I debated with psychiatry professor Lars Kessing on live TV in the Evening Show about suicides caused by depression pills. Bits of this appears in Anahi’s film.30 Kessing totally denied the science and the drug agencies’ warnings, saying that we know with great certainty that SSRIs protect against suicide. He added that the risk of suicide is large when people stop SSRIs but failed to mention that this is because of the pills’ harmful effects, as the patients go through cold turkey withdrawal.
Three days later, I was in a TV debate again with Kessing, this time about how we could reduce the consumption of depression pills. Kessing claimed that they are not dangerous. Lundbeck’s director of research, Anders Gersel Pedersen, was also in the studio and said that the most dangerous thing is not to treat the patients, and he claimed that the patients don’t become addicted but get a relapse of the disease when they stop taking the pills. Kessing claimed that perhaps only 10% of those who visit their family doctor are not helped by the medicine, quite a remark about drugs that don’t work and where flawed trials have shown not a 90% but only a 10% effect.
When Kessing was asked by the interviewer how the consumption of pills could be reduced—no matter what he might think about its size—he didn’t answer the question. He said we knew for sure that there had been a rising incidence of moderate to severe depression over the past 50 years. I replied that we could not tell because the criteria for diagnosing depression had been lowered all the time during this period.
I have experienced that when journalists react violently and go directly against the scientific evidence and the authorities’ warnings, it is virtually always because they think the pills have helped them or someone close to them, or because a relative works for Lundbeck or is a psychiatrist. I have been exposed to many such vitriolic attacks. It is sad that journalists throw everything overboard they learned at journalism school and explode in a cascade of rage and ad hominem attacks, but that can happen if you tell the truth about depression pills. You are attacking a religion.
As an example, a journalist triumphed in her headline: “I take happy pills, otherwise I would be dead!”37 She called me a life-threatening person, delusional, not in complete balance with myself but a person who might need to see a psychiatrist, and who should be ashamed of myself and be deprived of my professor title. “My wish is that someone can stop the mad professor.” She wrote this in a tabloid newspaper, but they shouldn’t publish such ravings.
In a radio debate, MIND’s National Chairman, Knud Kristensen, argued that some of their patients had said that depression pills had saved their life. I responded that it was an unfair argument because all those the pills had killed couldn’t raise from their graves and say the pills killed them.
I shall finish with the worst part. I had never seen an institution willingly admitting that it educates journalists to write flawed articles, uncritically repeating the strongly misleading narratives created by the drug industry and corrupt psychiatrists to the great harm of our patients and societies.21,38 But there it was, in 2020, in a country that already traded abundantly in fake news.
The Carter Center’s Guide for Mental Health Journalism is the first of its kind in the USA.39 Reporters are told to write that behavioral health conditions are common and that research into the causes of and treatments for these conditions has led to important discoveries over the past decade. They should inform the public that prevention and intervention efforts are effective and helpful. This means drugs, of course, and is the same message that the American Psychiatric Association has been promoting for over 40 years.
All of this is plain wrong. But it continues: Journalists should pin down exactly what a professional says is wrong with a patient and use that information to characterize a person’s mental state. There is no encouragement for journalists to consider how people so diagnosed see themselves, or whether they accept their diagnostic label.
Some of the so-called facts journalists are urged to include are: “Substance use disorders are diseases of the brain.” The guide explains that, “Although science has not found a specific cause for many mental health conditions, a complex interplay of genetic, neurobiological, behavioral, and environmental factors often contribute to these conditions.” Reporters are not encouraged to explore why it is that the public health burden of mental disorders has grown dramatically in the past 35 years, at the same time as the use of psychiatric drugs has exploded.40
According to the Carter Center, the DSM-5 is a reliable guide for making diagnoses. There is no mention of the fact that the diagnoses are totally arbitrary constructs created by consensus among a small group of psychiatrists, or that they lack validity, or that psychiatrists disagree wildly when asked to examine the same patients, or that most healthy people would get one or more diagnoses if tested.
The guide prompts reporters to echo the message from the American Psychiatric Association that psychiatric conditions are often undiagnosed and undertreated, and that psychiatric treatment is effective. “Psychiatric treatment” is a euphemism for drugs, but it avoids any discussion about how ineffective and harmful they are and makes everyone take the bait because “treatment” pretends to cover also psychotherapy, even though this is rarely offered.
The guide states that between 70% and 90% of people with a mental health condition experience a significant reduction in symptoms and improvement in quality of life after receiving treatment. The source of this horrendously false information is the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a heavily corrupted patient organisation.38 It is true that most people improve but that would also have happened without any treatment at all. The Carter Center seems to have “forgotten” why we do placebo-controlled trials, and, as I have explained in Chapter 2, psychiatric pills do not improve quality of life; they worsen it.
Reporters are told to emphasize the positive and avoid focusing on the failures of psychiatric care. The guide does not provide any resources for obtaining the perspectives of people with lived experience, most of whom would speak critically of the conventional wisdom. Furthermore, there are no discernible “services users” or survivor groups on the Center’s two key advisory boards.
Unfortunately, the Carter Center is seen as a leader in training journalists on how to report on mental health. It encourages journalists to act as stenographers who repeat conventional dogma.
It is difficult to see much hope for America. The Carter Center was founded by former First Lady Rosalynn Carter.
To read the footnotes for this chapter and others, click here.
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.