A scathing critique of antidepressant medication, just written by a psychiatrist in Wales, UK, is making waves across Britain and you can expect ripples to reach the U.S. in the coming days.

Psychiatry professor David Healy argues forcefully in this editorial that only through marketing a complete myth have the most common antidepressant drugs — so-called SSRIs including the brands Celexa, Lexapro, and Prozac — come to dominate how the medical field treats serious depression.

That myth, says Healy, is that depression is caused by an imbalance of the neurochemical serotonin in the brain. While studies show that SSRIs affect serotonin levels in the brain, and that taking SSRIs relieves symptoms of depression, damage is done when this is spun into an easy explanation for patients.

"Above all, the myth co-opted doctors and patients. For doctors, it provided an easy shorthand for communication with patients. For patients, the idea of correcting an abnormality has a moral force that can be expected to overcome the scruples some might have ... especially when packaged in the appealing form that distress is not a weakness."

Doctor prescribing pills

Healy says the medical establishment has done a poor job of explaining how SSRIs became popular in the first place: The reason was not for their efficacy, but because they were safer in larger doses. Taking tranquilizers remains a better treatment, says Healy, although overdosing on them is obviously dangerous. And now, patients have trouble going off SSRIs:

"[T]he number of antidepressant prescriptions a year is slightly more than the number of people in the Western world. Most (nine out of 10) prescriptions are for patients who faced difficulties on stopping, equating to about a tenth of the population."

Word "serotonin" appearing on a tablet computer

The medical establishment has also permitted a false analogy of medicine to other consumer goods, such as electronics, which tend to improve in efficiency and strength year after year. But medication doesn't work like that, says Healy. The standard for bringing a new pill to market isn't that it's more effective than the current treatment:

"In other areas of life, the products we use, from computers to microwaves, improve year on year, but this is not the case for medicines, where this year’s treatments may achieve blockbuster sales despite being less effective and less safe than yesterday’s models. The emerging sciences of the brain offer enormous scope to deploy any amount of neurobabble."

Dr. Julie Holland, a licensed psychiatrist in the state of New York, recently sat down with Big Think to discuss the far-reaching consequences that overprescribed psychiatric medications play, especially in the lives of women.


Read more at The BMJ.