Robert Whitaker’s report from his travels: Anatomy of an Epidemic Down Under

Many of you have probably seen this already. Keep posted via Mad in American, Robert Whitaker’s blog at Psychology today. With no further commentary I offer an excerpt and suggest you stay on top of this man’s important work.

The United States and New Zealand are the only two Western countries that allow pharmaceutical companies to directly market their products to consumers, and perhaps not surprisingly, the prescribing of antidepressants in that country has soared over the past 15 years. And now here is its disability data.

New Zealand’s Numbers

In 2000, there were 23,142 adults 18 to 64 years old on government disability (sickness or invalid benefits) in New Zealand due to psychiatric conditions. In 2010, there were 48,899 adults on government disability due to psychiatric disorders. On a per capita basis (total population divided by number of working-age adults on disability), that is an increase in disability from 1 in every 168 to 1 in every 90.

It is also notable that in 2000, disability due to psychiatric conditions represented 26% of the total disability pie, and that by 2010, this percentage had jumped to 34%. In other words, it is mental illness that is driving the country’s disability numbers upward. Between 2000 and 2010, the total disability count rose by 56,161 adults in New Zealand, and 46% of that increase was due to psychiatric conditions.

Finally, World Health Organization researchers recently published their findings on the prevalence of “bipolar spectrum disorder” in eleven countries. The United States led the list, while New Zealand was second. In the United States, the WHO investigators reported, the lifetime prevalence of bipolar spectrum disorder is 4.4% of the population; in New Zealand, it is 3.9%. At the bottom of the 11-country list were India, at .1%, and Bulgaria, .3%. Although I don’t have the prescribing data for antidepressants in those latter two countries, I feel confident in stating that antidepressant usage in those two countries much be much less than it is in the United States and New Zealand.

You might conclude, from this report, that a dramatic increase in the prevalance of bipolar disorder is one of the societal costs of allowing direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs….

….One common criticism of Anatomy of an Epidemic has been that I mistake “correlation for causation.” The fact that disability numbers have soared during a time of sharply increased usage of psychiatric drugs doesn’t prove that the drugs are causing the rise in disability, the critcs say. I agree, but in fact, in my book, I used the disability data merely as a starting point for questioning our drug-based paradigm of care. However, as I now find the same correlation occurring in country after country, I would say this is a case of more and more “smoke” appearing, and at some point, you have to ask when such correlational data provides evidence of a “fire.” read the whole article with more stats and documentation here

For more by Robert Whitaker:  Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America  is now in paperback

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