Prescription for Scandal: Biological Psychiatry's Faustian Pact

By Black, Anthony | Canadian Dimension, September 2001 | Go to article overview
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Prescription for Scandal: Biological Psychiatry's Faustian Pact


Black, Anthony, Canadian Dimension


The last few decades have witnessed an explosion in the use of psychiatric medication. Indeed, the omnipresence of legal brain altering drugs in our society is such that, nowadays, it is rare for us not to know someone else who is on them -- if we not already taking them ourselves.

Moreover, and contrary to popular perception, a marked increase in the practice of electro-shock therapy is accompanying this legal drug explosion.

Prior to 1960 this biological psychiatric arsenal was confined mostly within the walls of the major psychiatric institutions. Since then, the biological genie has escaped the confines of the mental institution and taken up residence amidst the population at large.

One of the reasons for this psychiatric colonization of the normal stems from the increasingly intimate association between the multibillion-dollar-a-year psycho-pharmaceutical industry and institutional psychiatry. Thus, the latter's psychiatric journals, conventions and professional associations are all substantially underwritten by the former.

Another reason is the rapid growth in Western society of an overarching philosophy of what is known as biological reductionism. This notion posits that, in studying any higher organizational entity, the whole can be explained by the parts, the complex by the simple, the higher by the lower. If you are "depressed," it is because you have a biochemical imbalance, rather than, perhaps, that your life has no meaning. If one goes to war it is because of individual "aggressive genes," rather than your being the pawn of complex socio-political forces over which you have no control.

A third and perhaps more ominous reason for the dramatic rise in the fortunes of biological psychiatry is that its proponents have waged a propaganda war on its behalf that is riven with pseudo-scientific claims and evidential suppression.

Shock/Drug Therapy and Brain Damage

They continue to claim, for instance, against substantial research to the contrary, that shock therapy is harmless. Needless to say, no psychiatrists have ever volunteered to test this hypothesis themselves. In this they are probably wise, since the original animal research (of the 1940s and 50s) demonstrating undeniable brain damage was damning in this regard, as has been much of the subsequent human clinical data.

Particularly disturbing are the demographic trends for this controversial procedure. In Canada and the United States, well over 100,000 people are subjected to the electroshock every year. Over two thirds of these patients are women, and almost half are the elderly.

Still, while ECT is one of the heavy weapons of the modern bio-psych arsenal, the more usual work-a-day armament is drug therapy. The first is targeted on a population of thousands. The second on millions.

Here again, proponents make a number of bold claims. Perhaps the most scandalous of these is that drug therapy is safe. In 1980, 25 years after the introduction of neuroleptic (antipsychotic) medication, an American Psychiatric Association task force report finally, grudgingly confirmed what a number of previously neglected studies had attempted to call attention to, namely, that roughly 40 per cent of chronic users of these drugs went on to develop tardive dyskinesia, a Parkinsonian-like movement disorder indicative of permanent brain damage. Subsequent studies only amplified these fears by pointing the finger at other permanent brain disorders caused by the neuroleptics. These included tardive akithisia, a highly debilitating anxiety and hyperactive movement disorder. All told, the evidence now in supports rates of neuroleptic-induced brain damage exceeding an astounding five per cent per year of usage.

For clearly psychotic patients there may be a cost-benefit tradeoff to consider -- except that few if any of the patients so prescribed are, or ever have been, told of the potential cost.

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