Response Paper on “Anatomy of an Epidemic” by Bob Fancher

Response Paper on “Anatomy of an Epidemic” by Bob Fancher

In his paper “Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of mental iIllness in America by Robert Whitaker,” Bob Fancher analyzes the rising psychiatric industry in America . He looks at whether or not the prescription of psychoactive drugs is necessary on such an easily accessible level, and questions whether the medicine for mental illness is actually helping or hurting patients. Fancher explores these ideas by looking at the arguments made in a book written by Robert Whitaker . Amidst a story of a woman encouraged to take antidepressant drugs the rest of her life, Fancher gives readers a brief history regarding the path of this medication. He explains, “Twenty-five years ago, psychotherapy, not drugs dominated mental health care…Today? Psychopharmacology rules the roost” (Fancher). By using Whitaker’s book as his main source of evidence, Fancher shows how drugs for mental illness might not necessarily be effective. In fact, they may even be harmful. He demonstrates that psychiatry has become more commercial over the years, and that the highly desired psychoactive drugs may actually be altering patients’ brains for the worse. Fancher is passionate about Whitaker’s assertion that “psychiatrists have quite literally rewritten the descriptions of mental illness to fit contemporary practice” (Fancher). He makes clear that the evidence regarding the effects of psychoactive drugs is not “airtight.” Yet, he concludes with the hope that Whitaker’s book will encourage people to look at the field of psychiatry in a different light.

In his article, Fancher argues in favor of Whitaker’s position on the realities of the field of psychiatry. He makes the claim that the now corrupt field of psychiatry has caused people to expect and overuse drugs to treat mental illness, when in fact these drugs are not necessarily beneficial to the patients in the long run. Fancher uses Whitaker’s book as well as other evidence to show how drugs for mental illness treatments are not effective, and often harmful. He asserts that “left untreated, it [depression] almost always cleared up in six months to a year” (Fancher). This is significant to his argument, for it shows that left untreated, mental illnesses can end on their own. Therefore, he shows that drugs are not necessarily required in order to reach remission. His claim is supported by evidence that shows how psychoactive drugs alter the brain, leading to further complications. Ultimately, the illness becomes defined in terms of the damage the drugs themselves have caused (Fancher).

In my opinion, Fancher’s claim (as a product of Whitaker’s claim) is valid. Although I don’t believe that the evidence he uses to support his claim is strong enough, I understand that he is merely emphasizing Whitaker’s argument and demonstrating his concurrence. Fancher really only reiterates statements Whitaker mentions in his book, and does not provide a great amount of outside evidence to secure his point. Nevertheless, Fancher makes his own good points . One such strong assertion is that, “When the chemical has an effect that someone in power likes, they call it a treatment” (Fancher). I believe this is true, and that in reality, a “treatment” can merely be side effects of a drug that overshadow existing pain. Any given drug has some effect; psychoactive drugs are therefore bound to have an effect on a patient’s symptoms, because they release certain chemicals in the brain to make a person feel a specific way. But just because an effect is felt does not mean that the drug is curing whatever is ailing a patient. As Fancher shows, people who have mental illnesses such as schizophrenia only show changes in the brain once drug use begins. Therefore, using the drugs is what alters the brain, not necessarily the illness itself.

Much of the validity of Fancher’s claims lie in the history of psychiatry. As he points out, treatment for mental illness used to be widely therapy based. But with the explosion of the psychiatry field, more people are receiving medications without therapy and “in just 10 years, from 1998 to 2007, the number of people seeking mental health care rose by about 50 percent, almost entirely from people seeking meds” (Fancher). Yet in poor countries where medicine is not as commonly administered , patients do better. More Americans are now on SSI or SSDI for mental illness, yet Fancher shows that most of these patients end up relapsing. As Marcia Angell asserts in his article “The Illusions of Psychiatry,” “Psychiatrists began to refer to themselves as psychopharmacologists, and they had less and less interest in exploring the life stories of their patients. Their main concern was to eliminate or reduce symptoms by treating sufferers with drugs that would alter brain function.” Clearly, the psychiatry industry is widely based on reducing symptoms through drug use, but the drug use is not entirely necessary. This quote shows that in the past, therapy worked to reduce the symptoms. Therefore, drug use must have other elements (presumably the commercial and reduced time elements) that make it so appealing. Angell also points out “as psychiatry became a drug-intensive specialty, the pharmaceutical industry was quick to see the advantages of forming an alliance with the psychiatric profession.” This shows how the psychiatry industry is not entirely honest, and should be questioned. The corrupt business side of psychiatry is turning drug therapy into a necessity, one that never used to exist in the past.

Fancher’s argument is also validated by a variety of other evidence, some of it scientific . Although drugs work to release specific neurotransmitters in the brain that may make a patient feel better, there is no evidence to date that suggests it is actually making the mental illness any better . The pills simply create chemical changes in the brain, yet as Marcia Angell asserts in her article “The Epidemic of Mental Illness,” “Neurotransmitter function seems to be normal in people with mental illness before treatment.” Mental illness does not occur because of problems with neurotransmitter functioning; therefore treatment is not solving the problem. To get a drug approved, companies “may sponsor as many trials as they like, most of which could be negative—that is, fail to show effectiveness. All they need is two positive ones” (Angell). There is overwhelming evidence that demonstrates the corruptness of the psychoactive drug world. Yes, the drugs make patients feel better temporarily. But these drugs are not actually curing the mental illness, they simply subdue it. Whitaker even shows that “once a person is put on a psychiatric medication, which, in one manner or another, throws a wrench into the usual mechanics of a neuronal pathway, his or her brain begins to function…abnormally” (Angell). This shows that drug use is even harmful to patients, and should not just be used out of convenience.

Fancher’s claim that the corrupt field of psychiatry has tainted the view of necessary treatment for mental illness, and that drugs are not beneficial to patients is therefore entirely valid. This is not to say that the drugs have no effect on the symptoms of patients experiencing mental illness. Of course, in altering the neurotransmitter production, they must have an effect on the way patients feel. Yet, there is clear evidence that these drugs do not solve mental illness, and actually cause distortions in the brain. The corrupt psychiatric field has triggered the common belief that the only way to treat mental illness is through drugs, so psychiatrists prescribe them without even trying other kinds of therapy. Therefore Fancher’s hope that Whitaker’s book will convince the world to change their views on psychoactive drugs is a pressing one. It seems that we must look beyond what we know to determine if we are indeed jeopardizing our lives for good.

Works Cited
Angell, Marcia. "The New York Review of Books." The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why? by Marcia Angell. Web. 13 Apr. 2012. .
Angell, Marcia. "The New York Review of Books." The Illusions of Psychiatry by Marcia Angell. Web. 13 Apr. 2012. .
Fancher, Bob. "Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America by Robert Whitaker." Web. 13 Apr. 2012. .