Anatomy of an Epidemic

Bruce Levine
ZMagazine

Robert Whitaker, a former Boston Globe reporter, was curious about why there has been such a large increase of disabling mental illness in the United States. His book, Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America (Crown Publishers, 2010), begins with these data points: in 1987, the U.S. mental illness disability rate was 1 in every 184 Americans, but by 2007 the mental illness disability rate had more than doubled to 1 in every 76 Americans.

During this same time period, there has also been a huge increase in psychiatric drug use. Prior to 1988 when Prozac hit the market, the annual U.S. gross for antidepressant and antipsychotic drugs was less than $1 billion, but today those two classes of psychiatric drugs alone gross more than $25 billion a year in the United States. The question for Whitaker was: is it just a coincidence that disabling mental illness and psychiatric drug use have been rapidly increasing at the same time?

Whitaker does not discount cultural factors that may have something to do with this dramatic increase in mental illness disability. However, he discovered that the most scientifically identifiable factor for the increase of severe psychiatric problems is the increase in psychiatric drug use. He identified a frightening trend: long-term psychiatric drug use has caused children and adults with minor emotional problems to have severe and chronic disorders that result in mental illness disabilities.

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