- concerned about the student lending crisis
- other major societal problems
- interested in my work as a political activist for the indentured educated class
Robert Whitaker has won numerous awards as a journalist covering medicine and science, including the George Polk Award for Medical Writing and a National Association for Science Writers’ Award for best magazine article. In 1998, he co-wrote a series on psychiatric research for the Boston Globe that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Anatomy of an Epidemic won the 2010 Investigative Reporters and Editors book award for best investigative journalism.He is also the author of Mad in America (Basic Books, 2010).
Before I jump into the interview with Mr. Whitaker, I want to thank one of my special readers who introduced me to Bob. The conversation was great, and I encourage all of you to buy Bob's recent book, Anatomy of an Epidemic.
Here's what we discussed:
CCJ: Not all of my readers are familiar with Anatomy of an Epidemic. Provide us with a brief hypnosis of the book, and why you decided to write it.
BW: The book investigates a puzzle: Why has the number of people disabled by mental illness soared in the past 20 years? And the hypothesis I raise is this: Is it possible that the widespread use of psychiatric medications, in one manner or another, is fueling this epidemic?
CCJ: You discuss the two histories of psychiatry and the rise of pharmacological drugs in the U.S. and in Europe. Most of us are familiar with the 'positive' side of this story, i.e., how people with mental illnesses have been cured or their bad symptoms have been diminished as a result of popping pills ('the magical bullet' theory that you mention in the beginning of the book). However, the negative side of the story is not as well known - it's much like two sides of the same coin. Tell us about the negative side of taking pills for bipolar disorder, ADHD, schizophrenia, and depression for years. What happens to some people? (And you obviously show that not everyone has a negative experience).
BW: The negative side of the coin is that many people who take the medications, particularly over the long-term, end up experiencing worse psychiatric symptoms, physical problems related to the drugs, and cognitive decline related to the drugs. In the aggregate, I think the data is pretty clear: long-term use of psychiatric worsens overall outcomes. Some people do well on the medications, but on the whole, the long-term use of medications worsens outcomes.
CCJ: I have a lot of readers who tell me that they are so overwhelmed by their student loan debt that they sought help, and have been prescribed all kinds of pills (anti-anxiety, sleeping pills, anti-depressants, etc.). How do you feel about this fact, i.e., that people who are drowning in student loan debt are being prescribed these types of medications? While some of them might have legitimate reasons for seeking medical treatment of this nature, do you think this is the best way to deal with the problem both at a societal level as well as a personal one?
BW: I would say this is precisely the wrong way to deal with this problem of student loan debt. Taking a pill won't make that debt go away, and so the underlying situation won't change. The question, I suppose, is whether taking a pill will help that person cope with the distress better, and thus perhaps pursue a better course (in terms of getting a job, etc.) Taking a pill may somewhat alleviate the emotional distress, at least for a time, but I don't think there is any evidence it helps people come up with a long-term solution to this problem. This is a problem that requires a societal fix, and that is providing youth with an opportunity to go to college without ringing up large amounts of debt.
CCJ: In your reporting, what were the most disturbing aspects of the interviews you had with people who began to question the benefits of taking these sorts of drugs? Does any particular story haunt you?
BW: Many stories haunt me. The ones that lingered were those instances when people suffered greatly trying to get off the medications, or never could get off, and ended up feeling trapped. People who began questioning the merits of the drugs often ended up being shunned by family and by their doctors, and had to go down this medication withdrawal path alone (when they decided to do so.) We have a system that encourages people to get on the drugs, but there is nothing in the system that helps those who want to get off them do so.
CCJ: These are powerful drugs. What happens when you mix them with alcohol or other recreational drugs?
BW: This isn't something I studied. But any time you mix drugs that act on the mind, whether illicit or licit, you obviously are courting danger. There is a risk to ingesting such a mix of drugs.
CCJ: As you indicate in your book, many experts in the field believe the theory of serotonin is just that - a theory - and many have hoped to debunk it. Why is this idea, that the 'mentally ill' brain has a 'chemical imbalance' still so popular, even among psychiatrists and clinicians?
BW: It's a myth that has been promoted by commercial interests, and one that is neat and simple and comforting. And people have difficulty giving up neat, comforting myths, particularly when those myths fit an ideological or commercial agenda. Plus, imagine if mainstream psychiatry were to now say, hey, that chemical imbalance story we have been telling you about, turns out it's not real! Psychiatry doesn't want to have to confess that story, and so, among the leaders of psychiatry, I think there is a hope it will now gradually fade away.
"[Part II] The Author's Hour: Morley Winograd and Mike D. Hais Debunk Assumptions about Millennials," AEM (Aug. 25, 2011)
"[Part III] The Author's Hour: Mike D. Hais and Morley Winograd Address the Public Perception of Millennials," AEM (Aug. 25, 2011)