January 24, 2012 by Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D. in Science Isn't Golden on Psychology Today website
NPR Broadcast Reveals Shockingly Demeaning Views of Patients
It is widely believed that National Public Radio has a liberal bias. Let us then consider the following: Yesterday on "Morning Edition,"(1) several psychiatrists acknowledged there is not a shred of evidence that low serotonin level causes depression, revolutionary talk in light of the rampant bias in the mental health system - accepted unquestioningly by far too many laypeople - that troubling emotions come from well-established chemical imbalances and thus can be cured with drugs that affect those chemicals.
Consider this quotation from the NPR story: "Chemical imbalance is sort of last-century thinking. It's much more complicated than that," says Dr. Joseph Coyle, a professor of neuroscience at Harvard Medical School. "It's really an outmoded way of thinking." Pretty clear message from Coyle, who edits the Archives of General Psychiatry.
A strange feature of many media that are generally considered to be liberal is their ardent promotion, as though it were a liberal attitude, of this outmoded, chemical imbalance or even "broken brain" theory of emotional suffering. They seem to think that it is a liberal view, because everyone has the "right" to take psychiatric drugs to "fix" their chemistry, but they are alarmingly irresponsible journalists to promote that view in the absence of revealing the whole truth about (1) the often damaging effects of those drugs, (2) the absence of proof from well-done research about the alleged cause-effect relationship between the chemicals and the troubling feelings, and (3) the known benefits of approaches that are lower-risk and proven to be helpful for many such kinds of suffering.
Here is the bizarre and deeply disturbing part of the NPR story: Alan Frazer, who chairs the pharmacology department at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and researcher of the drugs that are marketed under the label (and promise) "antidepressants," announces that it is fine for patients to believe in this unproven theory. Why? It enables them to "come out of the closet" about being depressed. Did Frazer not think how stunningly unethical and probably illegal it is to tell, or allow patients to believe, something that has never been proven? And did the NPR interviewer fail to challenge this practice, or did an editor higher up the chain cut the question (if it was asked) and answer?
Farther on in the story, we learn that University of Texas psychiatry department chair Pedro Delgado shares Frazer's view. He notes that uncertainty itself can be harmful to people, so that "clear, simple explanations are so very important." Says Delgado, "When you feel that you understand it, a lot of the stress levels are dramatically reduced." Ah, yes. But Dr. Delgado, why tell them the low-serotonin fairy tale? Why not say the stork brings depression, and prescribe eye of newt and toe of frog? My, my, once a helping professional chooses to manipulate and lie to the patient, there are so, so many fascinating lies to choose from.
Everyone who is currently ingesting drugs that affect not only their serotonin levels - often in highly individualized and unpredictable ways, which can change over time and begin having the opposite effects - but heaven knows what else, should be told about this NPR story. It reveals a disgusting contempt for people who are already suffering.
This is exactly why increasingly, people (including but by no means limited to the recently-formed PLAN T Alliance) are struggling against the massive enterprise that is psychiatric diagnosis, since there is little or no solid science behind it, it does not improve outcome (i.e., does not help patients feel better), and it often causes harm. And everyone who is in or considering going into the mental health system needs to know that the most fundamental building block leading to every kind of harm in that system is psychiatric diagnosis, because once you get a label, too many therapists (though of course not all) will assume you have a chemical imbalance, urge you to take drugs to fix it, and even choose not to tell you the truth when it is known.
How do you think that all the people who obediently ingested the pills the doctor ordered on the basis of unproven theories, many suffering horribly to the point of suicide because of drug effects, would feel if they knew this story? War veterans who are being told right and left that being devastated by war has made them mentally ill and that they need "antidepressants" to raise their allegedly low serotonin levels are one massive constituency of mistreated souls. And they are not the only ones, of course.
If any readers of this essay have never listened to someone so harmed by psychiatric drugs that they tried to kill themselves, I hope you will. It will break your heart. These people are among us, and for many, it is all the more tragic, because people close to them pushed them to take the drugs by saying, "If you love us, you'll take the pills." The more people know the truth, the fewer such dangers there will be.
©2012 by Paula J. Caplan All rights reserved