by Chuck Ruby, Ph.D.
A recent article in STAT addresses the poor track record of psychiatric drugs. But instead of concluding that the drugs or a flawed diagnostic system is the problem, the article focuses on the brain as the possible culprit in why the drugs don’t work.
It starts out with the story of Katie, who has been struggling for 20 years with visions and voices. My heart goes out to Katie in her life of struggle. But the article inhumanely and sterilely portrays her as merely a difficult patient. It notes that she has been homeless and hospitalized several times. But it never addresses the likely reason she was homeless: she’s been hospitalized and drugged several times. This would make her a shell of a human being without connection to her emotional world, which is where we find value, motivation, meaning, and the willingness to have faith in ourselves and others.
She is said to have finally found the right psychiatric drug after trying “just about every drug there is”. She is now taking Risperdal, one of the most dangerous of the psychiatric chemicals. It is said to “work well” for her. But this just means it put her into such a stupor that she isn’t concerned by the visions and voices anymore. But also, she is unlikely to be able to do anything else in an independent and functional way - thus the times of homelessness. Later in the article, she says, “With Risperdal, the voices don’t go away - but they get really quiet. They hardly bother me anymore.”
The author points out that it took Katie’s doctors 15 years to properly diagnose her condition, and even longer to find the right drug. Now why would it take 15 years to find a correct diagnosis? The DSM has been touted as a remarkable breakthrough as an objective and accurate psychiatric diagnostic tool. How could this be? The answer: The DSM is not, in fact, a valid diagnostic tool of real brain disease diagnoses. It is a catalogue of human problems in living, with fuzzy boundaries, similar to horoscope categories.
The article claims that while “scientists have made tremendous advances in decoding the genetics of physical illnesses, such as cancer, and developing precision therapies, treatments for mental health remain blunt tools.” The first part of this is true, but the reason mental health treatment tools are blunt is because “mental illness” (I’ll now dispense with the quotes but remember the term is figurative) is not an illness of the body that can be targeted for treatment. It is a metaphor that refers to personal, economic, political, spiritual, and existential dilemmas common to all people. If they keep looking for it in the body they will never find it. It would be like looking for evidence of heartbreak by examining the heart.
Nonetheless, psychiatry continues in blaming the brain. Psychiatric drugs are said to “work by blasting entire mechanisms in the brain, without addressing the specific chemical pathways that have gone awry.” In truth, medical science has never demonstrated mechanisms of the brain or chemical pathways to have “gone awry”. Again, they are looking in the wrong place. As another analogy, it would be like looking for the reason a driver is speeding by examining the engine.
With continued focus on the brain, the poor track record of psychiatric drugs and a 70% decline in drug company research is ostensibly “because the biological causes of mental illness are so complex. There hasn’t been much innovation in psychiatric medications in more than two decades.” This demonstrates the error. They keep looking and looking a the heart in order to find the causes of heartbreak, and they come up empty handed. True, the causes of mental illness are complex, but not complex bodily systems. The causes are complex human experiences.
So the search for biomarkers in the brain continues in order to help diagnose mental illness and to find treatments, with the often used comparison to the biomarker of increased blood glucose to diagnose diabetes. They hope such biomarkers will tell them “what’s gone wrong in the circuitry of a particular patient’s brain and offer clues for drug development — and, perhaps one day, even precision psychiatric therapies. But that’s far easier said than done.” Actually, that’s impossible. It’s impossible because they keep looking in the brain for defective circuits when decades of research has failed to give even a scintilla of evidence that the brain is what’s wrong. In most other areas of real scientific research the preponderance of evidence gathered dictates the direction of future research. In psychiatry, the research continues looking for proof the earth is flat, after years of evidence showing that it is spherical.
Then comes an absurdity. This article suggests that some biomarkers might not be physical. This is an oxymoron: biomarker by definition is about biology, which is physical. Voice analysis is an example given, but wouldn’t this just demonstrate not a biomarker, but one’s experience of emotional distress? The medically-scientifically-sounding quote, “Research suggests that voice analysis could give clues as to a patient’s mental illness, as certain sentence structures and cadences can objectively be linked to psychiatric disease” just means voice tone and structure are linked to distress. But more problematic about this, why not just listen to the meaning of what the person has to say? They are looking right past the issue.
But returning to biomarkers, a study is used to suggest an imbalance of free radicals could help diagnose schizophrenia. This is another absurdity. Free radicals increase when someone is under chronic stress. These aren’t biomarkers of schizophrenia, they are biomarkers of chronic distress. But would we really need to find biomarkers in order to conclude someone is distressed?
So the article turns to genes. One chair of psychiatry says, “As more genes are linked to various mental illnesses, the number of psychiatric biomarkers should increase.” Another misleading comment because no gene has ever been linked to mental illness.
In another frequently used tactic, the story of Alzheimer’s is presented to assuage those who are frustrated with the failure to find treatments for mental illness. It is said that the “physical characteristics of brains disordered by Alzheimer’s are well known, for instance, yet drug companies have failed for decades to come up with effective drugs, despite pouring hundreds of millions into research.” Throwing Alzheimer’s in here is a ploy, again to give a medical impression about mental illness. Alzheimer’s is a condition caused by real brain defects. There are no brain defects of mental illness.
The article then turns to illicit street drugs and their use as “treatment”. Aside from the fact that current illicit street drugs like cocaine and heroin were once prescribed as “medicines”, this line of research is silly. It is said that Ketamine is showing remarkable promise in treating depression. Psilocybin for anxiety and depression in terminally ill cancer patients. And MDMA, or ecstasy, for PTSD. Sure. And I use rum and coke to treat my workaholism. These drugs just like prescribed legal psychiatric drugs do no more treating than does alcohol.
Throughout this article, the language used and the allusions made give the impression that mental illness is about brain defects, when there is no evidence of that. It is repeated that brain mechanisms, circuits, and pathways are misfiring, awry, jarred, and strengthened. This is incredible as there is no evidence of any of it.
In closing out the article, the author notes that psychiatric drug prescription rates have increased substantially in the past two decades, with the rate of antidepressant use alone quadrupling, and with one in six Americans on some type of psychiatric drug. This should tell us something. Is the huge increase in drug prescription rates a sign of increasing prevalence of mental illness? Or that despite the use of these drugs, they don’t work? Or perhaps an even more parsimonious explanation: there is no illness to treat.