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Drugs

Bunk Brains: A Chat with Robert Whitaker

Is the science behind psychiatry's "chemical imbalance" theory breaking down?

by Kelly Bourdet
May 10 2012, 2:40pm

Recently, the biopsychiatric take on depression and many other mental disorders has come under attack. We’ve been told that many psychiatric illnesses are caused by a “chemical imbalance” in the brains of the affected and that common antidepressants and antipsychotics work to correct it. The only problem? That whole concept was known to be wrong 25 years ago. Why, then, are so many people handed prescriptions that purport to fix their imbalances?

Robert Whitaker began researching for a series on abuses of psychiatric patients for the Boston Globe with a self-professed conventional understanding of psychiatry. But as he delved deeper into the scientific literature, he found surprising results. Where was the proof of the chemical imbalance? Why did short-term outcome studies show improvement with drug treatment, but long-term outcome studies showed medicated patients faring worse than their unmediated counterparts?

Whitaker’s research eventually became Anatomy of an Epidemic, a detailed work of scientific journalism that questions our current psychiatric paradigm. I had the chance to speak with him recently to discuss how there’s such a broad disconnect between psychiatric research and the common perception of how psychiatric issues are solved.

Motherboard: You wrote in your introduction to Anatomy of an Epidemic about how when you were first introduced to the study of psychiatry, you were initially convinced of the correctness of the current, popular understanding. Yet, Anatomy of an Epidemic is quite skeptical of this paradigm. How did that change happen for you?

I really got interested in a backdoor manner. I was doing a series for the Boston Globe on abuses of psychiatric patients in research settings and I had a completely conventional understanding of psychiatry. I thought we were getting ever better at understanding the biological causes of schizophrenia and other mental disorders, and I thought that drugs fixed chemical imbalances.

That was the context. It was a four-part series and one of the parts covered situations in which doctors had withdrawn anti-psychotics from schizophrenia patients. We wrote that was unethical because you would never withdrawn insulin from a diabetic, so why would you withdrawn anti-psychotics from a schizophrenia patient?

Read the rest at Motherboard.