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We’ve Overdosed

There's a growing number who object to the widespread use of the ‘chemical cosh’ to treat people with mental difficulties. But psychiatrists and the pharma companies would argue that depression and ADHD are real conditions for which drugs work. Which side is right?

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.


Speakers

For the motion

Darian Leader

Psychoanalyst and author


Psychoanalyst and author whose books on the psyche, love, the sexes, and the arts have won him a popular following. In Strictly Bipolar he established himself as a campaigning voice against the use of drugs-based treatments for mental health disorders. His most recent publication is The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression.

Will Self

Novelist, broadcaster and literary critic


Widely acclaimed novelist, broadcaster, political commentator and literary critic, known for his acerbic wit. He has been described in the Guardian as the most daring and delightful novelist of his generation. His most recent novels are Umbrella, Shark and Phone, a trilogy which the New Statesman predicted will become ‘one of the most significant literary works of our century, books that reflect and refract the hideousness of our times'. His memoir, Will, was released in November 2019.
Against the motion

Dr Declan Doogan

Former Head of Worldwide Development, Pfizer Inc


Veteran of the pharmaceutical industry. He was formerly Head of Worldwide Development at Pfizer Inc. which developed the popular antidepressant Zoloft. He is currently CEO of Portage Biotech and executive chairman of BioHaven, a technology start-up which is working on a radically new form of antidepressant based on ketamine.

Sir Simon Wessely

President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists


President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. He is also Chair of Psychological Medicine and Vice Dean of the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London.
Chair

Matthew Taylor

Chief Executive of the RSA


Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), and former head of the Number 10 Policy Unit under Prime Minister Tony Blair.