Drug pushers. We tend to associate them with the bleak underworld of criminality. But some would argue that there’s another class of drug pushers, just as unscrupulous, who work in the highly respectable fields of psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry. And they deserve the same moral scrutiny that we apply to the drug pedlar on the street corner. Within the medical profession labels are increasingly being attached to everyday conditions previously thought to be beyond the remit of medical help. So sadness is rebranded as depression, shyness as social phobia, childhood naughtiness as hyperactivity or ADHD. And Big Pharma is only too happy to come up with profitable new drugs to treat these ‘disorders’, drugs which the psychiatrists and GPs then willingly prescribe, richly rewarded by the pharma companies for doing so. In the last decade the use of antidepressants in the UK has doubled and in 2012 50 million prescriptions had been written for them. It’s a similar story for hyperactivity: the use of Ritalin has tripled with 800,000 prescriptions written by 2012.
Even worse, argue the critics, the scientific and ethical flaws in the research behind some of these drugs have purposefully not been published. Meanwhile the real underlying causes of behavioural problems and human misery are often left untreated. That’s the view of those who object to the widespread use of the ‘chemical cosh’ to treat people with mental difficulties. But many psychiatrists, while acknowledging that overprescribing is a problem, would argue that the blame lies not with themselves. For example, parents and teachers often ramp up the pressure to have a medical label attached to a child’s problematic behaviour because that way there’s less stigma attached and allowances are made. And psychiatrists and the pharma companies also take issue with those who argue that the ‘chemical imbalance’ theory of mental disorder is a myth. ADHD is a real condition, they say, for which drugs work. Research shows that antidepressants really are more effective than just a placebo, especially in cases of severe depression. Scientists are now working on a completely new kind of antidepressant for people who have endured incurable depression and anxiety for decades – with promising results so far. Human suffering will never be eradicated but evidence shows that pharmaceutical drugs have improved the lives of millions around the world.