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Review of “Anatomy of an Epidemic”

Any parent can relate to a six year old boy who has trouble standing still without fidgeting with something. Does this mean he has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)? What about adults who are anxious on Sunday evenings? Do they suffer from depression? The phenomenal increase in mental illness in the U.S. is the subject of Robert Whitaker’s book “Anatomy of an Epidemic”. This is a fascinating book that traces the origins of psychiatry from the traditional Freudian style of “opening up on a couch” to the modern drug-oriented application.

Whitaker, an award-winning writer for the Boston Globe and author of several books on the subject, cites various studies conducted on the rise in mental illness and consequently the disability insurance payments by the U.S. government. The conclusion of all these studies is disturbing. The drugs help the patient in the short term but not so over a longer period as they work on the chemicals in the brain. Researchers even found placebo cure more effective in many cases. There is a whole group of vested interests that do not want these results publicized, from the pharmaceutical companies to academic psychiatrists who get additional compensation from drug companies. Pharmaceutical companies also contribute to organizations like National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) or advocacy groups such as Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD). Dissenting psychiatrists are quickly dealt by the ‘system’. This happened in the messy affair of David Healy and University of Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in 2001.

Robert Whitaker ends “Anatomy of an Epidemic” on an optimistic note as he gives examples of organizations where focus on wellness than drug use has led to encouraging results. Sometimes the age old solution of good diet and exercise is better than popping Prozac!

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