Anatomy of an Epidemic – Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America

Reviewed by Frances Basset (Frances Basset is a BACP accredited Psychosynthesis Therapist)

The Journal of Mental Health Training, Education and Practice

ISSN: 1755-6228

Article publication date: 30 March 2012



by Frances Basset, R. (2012), "Anatomy of an Epidemic – Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America", The Journal of Mental Health Training, Education and Practice, Vol. 7 No. 1, pp. 47-47.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This is an important and very well researched book, tracking the history of psychiatry's endeavour to present itself as a science rather than an art. Starting from the 1950s through to the present day, this alarming text exposes the myths behind psychiatry's insistence that mental illness is a brain disease to be treated with drugs, which must be taken forever, much as someone with diabetes would require insulin. Interwoven with personal stories, the book unravels the astonishing theme that psychiatric medications may actually be worsening the mental health of Americans to create an epidemic. Part of this epidemic involves the increasingly powerful pharmaceutical industry and the ever‐growing classification of mental illness (soon to be published DSM‐V). Most worrying is the dramatic increase of diagnosis and subsequent medicating of children sometimes as young as two years old. Whitaker states, “millions of children and adolescents are being groomed to be life‐long users of these drugs”. Whereas the selective short‐term use of psychiatric medications has an important part to play in treating mental illness, the evidence in this book suggests that long‐term use is clearly disabling. Thankfully the statistics for Europe are more encouraging, where unlike in America, psychiatrists are less likely to be working in such a partisan way with the pharmaceutical industry.

This is a revealing book that mental health workers should read, especially those working in mainstream health services. It will certainly burst the bubble of those who feel in awe of psychiatry and the medical model. The book's strength is in Whitaker's attention to detail and his level of analysis is impressive. The emphasis on American healthcare might put some readers off, but I felt it certainly had implications for the UK, particularly in light of the current health service reforms. I would have liked to read an equally substantial conclusion having read such a robust argument. Whilst Whitaker offers some pointers to the future in his final chapter, this was not the strongest part of the book. He does, however, allude to the potential use of more talking therapies as part of a more social model for treating mental illness.

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