Robert Whitaker and His Solid Critique of Psychological Pharmaceuticals

17 February, 2020
Robert Whitaker isn't a scientist or a doctor, but he's one of the leading experts on psychological pharmaceuticals and the suspicious ways they’ve appeared and stayed on the market.

Robert Whitaker has been one of the most critical voices of psychiatry for the past few years. Curiously, he isn’t a psychiatrist nor a psychologist. He’s a journalist who got involved in the topic of mental health because of a fact that, to him, seemed scandalous.

In the year 1994, Harvard Medical School published a study that showed that people with schizophrenia actually got worse when they took medication. Notably, they showed that in so-called “third world” countries, patients who didn’t have access to those medications seemed to have a more favorable evolution.

Robert Whitaker’s journalistic instincts led him to investigate the issue more. From there, he published a series of articles in the Boston Globe. He then wrote a book that soon became a classic on the topic. It’s called Anatomy of an Epidemic. In it. he lays out everything he knows about psychological pharmaceuticals with precise data.

Robert Whitaker and his investigations

The first result of Whitaker’s investigation was the book Mad in America. There, he presented the Harvard study’s conclusions and those of the World Health Organization (WHO). According to them, schizophrenics in more developed countries had a worse outcome, even though they had access to the latest anti-psychotics. Exactly the opposite happened in poor countries.

A woman worried and sad.

The publication triggered great controversy, especially with psychiatrists. Because of this, Robert Whitaker decided to do much more detailed and long-term research. For this purpose, he decided to focus exclusively on people diagnosed with depression who took drugs to treat it.

One of his main conclusions was that mental illness had grown in the United States at an alarming speed. And that growth corresponded exactly with the distribution of those psychological pharmaceuticals. While there were 355,000 people in psychiatric institutions in the United States in 1955, by 1985 that number reached 1,200,000. How can experts explain that the higher the number of treatments available, the higher the number of sick people?

Some data from Whitaker’s work

Based on the above figure, Whitaker increased the detail of his investigations and observations. He analyzed current cases and available statistics. This is how he arrived at the conclusion that before antidepressants appeared, people who suffered from it had a period of heightened symptoms which later went away almost naturally.

Two men with pills as mouths.

Robert Whitaker concluded, based on the available data, that antidepressants seemed to have a positive effect in the first two years of treatment. However, with the prolonged use of this medication, people got worse and their depression became chronic.

Actually, Whitaker proposed something even more worrisome. According to the data, the prolonged use of antidepressants can generate psychotic episodes. He showed that when this happens, psychiatrists simply change patients’ diagnoses from depression to bipolar disorder. He indicates that something similar happens with antipsychotics prescribed to schizophrenia patients.

So what’s going on?

Whitaker’s proposals caused a lot of controversies, even at Harvard University. He didn’t stop at simply diagnosing the situation; he openly accused multinational pharmaceutical companies of being behind it. Whitaker insisted that they were responsible for making mental problems chronic on purpose in order to build a captive market.

Obviously, many psychiatrists have challenged Whitaker. However, Marcia Angell, editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, confirmed the findings of the journalist in 2011. She not only found evidence that he might be right but she was also one of the supporters for a project in which Whitaker would train psychiatrists in the United States.

The human mind is a puzzle.

Those who’ve been aware of the problem point to the fact that no pharmaceutical company has sued Whitaker. If his research was incorrect, these companies certainly would have taken him to court so that he would take back his words, ensuring the pharmaceutical industry’s prestige stayed intact. His work is fresh, interesting, and valuable. Thus, it’s worth studying.

  • DE LA MATA RUIZ, I. V. Á. N. (2016). Anatomía de una epidemia. Robert WHITAKER (2015), Anatomía de una epidemia: medicamentos psiquiátricos y el asombroso aumento de las enfermedades mentales, Madrid, Capitán Swing, ISBN 978-84-943816-7-6, 448 páginas. Revista de la Asociación Española de Neuropsiquiatría, 36(130).