Here, medical journalist and Pulitzer Prize nominee Whitaker discusses how the widespread use of psychiatric drugs has contributed to the increase in mental illness.
Tens of millions of Americans have been made crazy — due to their use of or withdrawal from psychiatric drugs. That’s the conclusion of two books written by award-winning health science writer Whitaker.
In his first book, Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill, Whitaker explained the history of the treatment of those with severe mental illness, and the 600 percent increase in the disabilities of psychiatric drug-takers.
His latest book, Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, documents the powerful forces behind psychopharmacology, and follows the money behind those forces.
Dr. Gary Kohls, reviewing the books in the Online Journal, notes:
“Psychiatric drugs, whose developers, marketers and salespersons are all in the employ of the giant drug companies, are far more dangerous than the drug and psychiatric industries are willing to admit: These drugs, it turns out, are fully capable of disabling — often permanently — body, brain and spirit.”
Depression used to have a very good outcome. If you came to your physician with symptoms of depression 40 or even 30 years ago, he would tell you that you could and would get better. You’d be assured that most depressive episodes run their course and terminate with virtually complete recovery, without specific interventions such as drug treatment.
But as Whitaker points out in his books, something changed in the field of diagnosing and treating depression in the last few decades, and that something has led to a 600 percent increase in persons on government (Social Security) disability due to mental illness!
Today’s Approach to Mental Health = Drugs
So what happened between 1974 and today to make the prognosis of depression go from one with a positive outcome to one that essentially disables you for life?
You don’t need a medical degree to figure it out.
Just turn on your TV, and what do you see?
Advertisements that all but hypnotize you into believing that this drug or that will help you feel better – especially if it turns out that you’re one of the two-thirds of people on antidepressants who aren’t getting better.
As Whitaker points out in his interview with me, that’s the Abilify ad, which basically is telling you to step up onto the next rung on the psychiatric drug ladder and add an antipsychotic drug, because what they’re giving you on the lower rung – antidepressants – don’t work.
In his research, Whitaker has conclusively shown that in most cases these drugs work no better than a placebo – and can also have serious side effects, including causing even more serious mental disorders than the one you’re being treated for!
I’ve discussed this in previous articles, such as this one in 2002. And earlier this month, I wrote about how drug companies have hidden clinical trials that showed negative effects, or no efficacy at all, as Whitaker describes in his work.
When it comes to side effects, many people are aware of the most common ones, such as sexual dysfunction and sleeplessness. And if you go back to the TV, you’ll see that some of these negative effects are mentioned in the ads – albeit so quickly you don’t really have time to think about them.
But did you know that some of the worst side effects aren’t even classified as such?
Or that others, like substantial weight gain and increased glucose and lipid metabolism, can be so unpleasant that people on these drugs just stop taking them?
A Terrible Side Effect They Don’t Publicize
In fact, a 2005 study in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that 74 percent of schizophrenic patients in one study quit taking their medication either because of its inefficacy (it didn’t work); or because it had intolerable side effects, or other unwanted problems.
Another factor that is rarely discussed is the potent addictive potential of these drugs.
And perhaps the worst “side effect” of all is that they can cause you to acquire a more severe form of mental illness than you started with!
That’s right – as Whitaker found during his thousands of hours of research on the topic – after what might be an initial uplift in your condition, antidepressant drug users tend to spiral downward into a chronic course of long-term depression.
You can also end up becoming bipolar, or developing various types of psychoses, meaning that you’ll need to “graduate” to a new or additional medication, often an anti-psychotic drug that blocks dopamine receptors in your brain.
The cyclic effect of these drugs causing the very problems they were designed to cure is something Whitaker discusses in-depth in his book.
The Money Behind the Madness
As a result of this vicious cycle, where the drugs deepen the mental health problems they’re designed to treat. Spending on psychiatric drugs has risen from about $600 million a year in 1985, to more than $40 billion a year today, while disability rates due to depression and bipolar illness have skyrocketed!
Not exactly what you would expect to find if these drugs were actually working as advertised.
How we came to this point is a story in itself, which Whitaker has explored at depth and relates with finesse.
I urge you to read both his books (Mad in America, and Anatomy of an Epidemic) to get the full story, but in short, he explains it like this: In the 1970s psychiatry as a discipline was under siege, with lots of therapists entering the field. To make matters worse, an old stand-by anxiety drug was beginning to be deemed too addictive and harmful to use.
Because of this, sales of psychiatric drugs had dropped. As a result, psychiatry did a sort of gathering of the troops, and decided that one way to save the industry as well as their jobs was to rewrite their job descriptions and the field of psychiatry itself.
This led to the creation of a new diagnostic manual, in which the definitions of mood problems such depression suddenly changed to medical disorders – thus diagnosable only by a physician or psychiatrist, and treatable by prescriptions that only those physicians/psychiatrists could write.
To sell this new idea to the public, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) decided to align itself with none other than the very pharmaceutical companies that had a financial stake in this new paradigm – and the rest, as they say, is history.
Big Pharma moved in, sponsoring so-called scientific presentations, hiring academic physicians and people major medical schools to do their sales talks, and sending the money flowing through academic grants, fellowships, and funding of studies -- all designed to “help” your mental health with the aid of their drugs.
And now, in a sad reflection of the old adage, “He who pays the piper calls the tune,” psychiatry is a vicious circle of diagnosis, drugs, and more drugs as one illness leads to the next.
The bottom line is that the real cause of the explosion in mental illness is, first, the money behind the medications, and second, a flawed system that depends on drugs that merely transforms one problem into another.
Exercise: One of Nature’s Best Alternatives to Maintaining Good Mental Health
Fortunately, more and more research is coming out in support of natural, drug-free ways to maintain or achieve good mental health. Much of that research is showing that simple strategies such as dietary changes and physical activity can significantly assist your recovery.
A Duke University team studied three groups that tried exercise only; exercise plus drugs; and drugs only, to see what treatment best treated depression. They found that after six weeks, the drug-only group was doing a tiny bit better than the other two groups.
They hypothesized that the best stay-well rate would be those with drugs plus exercise.
But they were wrong!
Ten months later, it was the exercise-only group that was most successful in maintaining wellness! In fact, according to a September 22, 2000 Duke University press release:
“After demonstrating that 30 minutes of brisk exercise three times a week is just as effective as drug therapy in relieving the symptoms of major depression in the short term, medical center researchers have now shown that continued exercise greatly reduces the chances of the depression returning.
The new study, which followed the same participants for an additional six months, found that patients who continued to exercise after completing the initial trial were much less likely to see their depression return than the other patients.
Only 8 percent of patients in the exercise group had their depression return, while 38 percent of the drug-only group and 31 percent of the exercise-plus-drug group relapsed.”
While the researchers weren’t exactly sure why exercise worked better than the drug used in this study – Zoloft – they speculated that active participation in their get-well program was the key difference for the exercise-only group.
"Simply taking a pill is very passive," said study leader James Blumenthal. "Patients who exercised may have felt a greater sense of mastery over their condition and gained a greater sense of accomplishment. They may have felt more self-confident and competent because they were able to do it themselves, and attributed their improvement to their ability to exercise.
“Findings from these studies indicate that a modest exercise program is an effective and robust treatment for patients with major depression. And if these motivated patients continue with their exercise, they have a much better chance of not seeing their depression return.”
That’s right: In this study of 156 participants diagnosed with major depressive disorder, the researchers found that the best drug of all was the feeling that they were actively in control of determining their own outcomes!
The Duke researchers were not exercise specialists and it is likely that they overlooked exercises that work your white muscle fibers, like the Peak Fitness Techniques, which could work even better.
Yoga – A Gentle Way to Exercise Depression
Yoga is another proven way to address depression and avoid medications. Recent research confirms that yoga not only enhances mood, and has positive effects over other physical activities, but also helps increase brain gamma aminobutyric (GABA) levels.
In this study, participants who practiced yoga three times a week for an hour increased brain gamma aminobutyric (GABA) levels over another group that walked three times a week for an hour.
A similar study in 2007 reported the same thing, leading researchers to believe that the practice of yoga could be an alternative treatment for depression and anxiety, disorders associated with low GABA levels.
If you’ve followed my articles even a little while, you also know that EFT, or the Emotional Freedom Technique, is an exercise involving only your fingers and mind that I highly recommend for optimizing emotional health. Based on the same energy meridians used in traditional acupuncture to treat physical and emotional ailments for over 5,000 years, this technique works without needles, while using positive affirmations.
Nutrition Also Plays an Important Part
As Whitaker and I discuss in this interview, nutrition is another key player in evidence-based alternatives to drugs.
It’s already known that many additives, preservatives and food colorants can cause behavioral changes, and sugar should definitely be on this list as well.
One of the most recent and highly plausible theories that explain sugar’s impact on your mood and mental health is the connection between sugar and chronic inflammation.
Other studies have also found significant links between high-sugar diets and mental health problems such as depression and schizophrenia, even though they were not focused on the presence of inflammation per se.
For example, a 2004 study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that a higher dietary intake of refined sugar and dairy products predicted a worse 2-year outcome of schizophrenia.
As explained by Dr. Russell Blaylock, high sugar content and starchy carbohydrates lead to excessive insulin release, which can lead to falling blood sugar levels, or hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia, in turn, causes your brain to secrete glutamate in levels that can cause agitation, depression, anger, anxiety, panic attacks and an increase in suicide risk.
The dietary answer for treating depression is to severely limit sugars, especially fructose, as well as grains.
The Importance of Omega-3 Fats for a Healthy Mind
Studies also show that omega-3 fats may positively influence outcome in depressive disorders. Low plasma concentrations of DHA (a type of omega-3 fat) is associated with low concentrations of brain serotonin. This decreased amount of serotonin can be associated with depression and suicide.
Not getting enough animal based omega-3 fats is known to change the levels and functioning of both serotonin and dopamine (which plays a role in feelings of pleasure), as well as compromise the blood-brain barrier, which normally protects your brain from unwanted matter gaining access.
Omega-3 deficiency can also decrease normal blood flow to your brain, an interesting finding given that studies show people with depression have compromised blood flow to a number of brain regions.
Finally, omega-3 deficiency also causes a 35 percent reduction in brain phosphatidylserine (PS) levels, which is relevant considering that PS has documented antidepressant activity in humans.
Omega-3 fats such as those in krill oil have actually been found to work just as well as antidepressants in preventing the signs of depression, but without any of the side effects. In fact, throughout my years of medical practice I’ve had large numbers of patients be able to stop their antidepressants once they started taking omega-3 fats.
So if you are currently struggling with depression, taking a high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fat supplement daily is a simple and smart choice … but it is only one important part of my overall recommendations for treating depression.
How the Sun Can Influence a “Sunnier Disposition”
Another essential nutrient in the treatment of depression is vitamin D.
One study found people with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more prone to be depressed than those who received healthy doses.
And, according to a study published in the September 9, 2010 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, maintaining proper levels of vitamin D, and particularly Vitamin D3, in utero and during early infancy can even help prevent a much more serious mental disorder – schizophrenia.
The study showed that newborn babies born with low vitamin D levels were more likely to develop schizophrenia later in life – leading researchers to suggest that perhaps vitamin D supplements might be all you need to prevent this devastating illness.
The researchers also looked at other populations, such as dark-skinned ethnic groups living in cold countries, and residents of highly urban areas who aren’t exposed to regular sunlight like those in rural areas, concluding that:
“It may be feasible to reduce the incidence of schizophrenia in this group by a staggering 87 percent” by simply giving them Vitamin D supplements!
I strongly recommend optimizing your vitamin D levels, either by sunlight exposure, a safe tanning bed, or taking a high-quality vitamin D supplement, to your list of depression fighters.
Salt is Also a Natural Antidepressant…
Interestingly, simple sodium deficiency also creates many symptoms that are nearly identical to those of major depression, such as:
- loss of appetite
- loss of capacity to experience pleasure and joy
- difficulty concentrating
- excessive fatigue
- general sense of exhaustion
To learn more about the importance of natural salt for optimal brain function and mood regulation, please see my previous article Is Salt Nature's Antidepressant?
What To Do if You’re Already on Medication for Depression
If you’ve already been diagnosed with depression or a more serious mental illness, it is vitally important you do NOT stop your medication cold-turkey! Doing so could be dangerous to both your mental and physical health.
What you want is a cautious approach to discontinuing these drugs – and you need to do this with the assistance of a qualified and knowledgeable clinician who can slowly wean you off them over a period of a few weeks or months.
Ideally, this would be someone who has roots in natural health, and who will help you use natural, healthy options such as dietary changes, exercise, and some energy psychology approaches to do this.
Having a professional help you also means you’ll have a mentor who will guide you through the physical and emotional changes you’ll experience as you leave the drugs behind, including any uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.
Mental Health is Often Inseparable from Physical Health
I want to reiterate that depression can indeed be a very serious condition. If left untreated it can have a devastating impact on just about every aspect of your life and can actually kill you by leading to suicide.
However drugs are very rarely the answer.
So please actively investigate and use the natural treatments I’ve suggested the above, ideally with the support and guidance of a knowledgeable natural health care practitioner.
Always remember that these three primary factors -- exercise, addressing emotional stress, and eating right -- will make you feel at the top of your game. Whether you want to overcome depression, feel happier or just want to stay healthy, these are the lifestyle changes that will get you there.