It’s not just in our heads, or the reality of mental illness

During the past week, I’ve read several articles discussing the alleged excesses of the psychiatric profession.  One of the most annoying is this one by Edward Shorter in the Wall Street Journal.   Although I agree with Shorter’s critique of the shady practices of some pharmaceutical companies, he goes too far in claiming that anti-depressants are nothing more than placebos (Irving Kirsch makes the same argument in The Emperor’s New Drugs).  As I said in my comments over at University Diaries, I’d really like to see Shorter’s evidence for all these claims [especially the dubious one that benzodiazapenes are not addictive]. While there may be some truth to the argument that psychiatric disorders are overdiagnosed, he hasn’t presented very solid evidence that this is the case. Readers should also know that he’s a strong proponent of electroconvulsive therapy — which may have its uses in intractable cases but has serious side effects of its own.  How is the direct-to-consumer advertising for anti-depressants any different from those for other drugs? I’m a critic of Big Pharma too — but Shorter throws out the good with the bad. I really don’t appreciate Shorter’s implication that I’m a fool for taking SSRIs. If Shorter had made this argument about treatments for arthritis or diabetes, would anyone take him seriously?

Shorter is not a scientist: like me, he’s a historian of medicine. He has no experience treating patients with mental illness. He’s made similar claims for patients with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome — basically saying that these diseases are not real but all in the heads of the patients (a large percentage of whom are women — in other words, women are stupid.  For an excellent feminist critique of this view, see FWD/Forward).   There needs to be a middle ground between critiquing the pharmaceutical industry and acknowledging the reality of mental illness. Unfortunately this is not a sexy enough topic to attract the attention of the mainstream media.

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3 Comments

  1. As someone who deals with depression… (and now I know now it’s all in my head…) Shorter and Tom Cruise need to get together and take that long walk off a short pier. Maybe that would make me feel better.

  2. That makes me angry. First of all, saying antidepressants are placebos is just stupid. Someone who would say that has never experienced severe depression or been brought back from suicidality by the grace of antidepressants. As for electroconvulsive therapy, I have a friend who underwent that and now he’s brain damaged. This guy needs to put down “Girl, Interrupted” and realize it’s not 1960 anymore.

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