Cookies

This Website use Cookies OK

Read more Opinion News

Marianne Williamson has a point about psychiatric medication

2019-08-23

Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson speaks at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum on August 19, 2019 in Sioux City, Iowa. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Presidential candidate Marianne Williamson might be best known for her debate-stage denunciation of the “dark psychic force” allegedly underlying Donald Trump’s presidency, but her comments on related psychotropic matters also merit serious consideration. Given Williamson’s slightly otherworldly demeanor, it can be tempting to dismiss all her prescriptions about contemporary society as crankish proselytization — a ruse to sell self-help books and juice attendance numbers at the weird conferences she’ll inevitably headline in the near future.

And some of her zanier proclamations — such as “cancer and AIDS and other physical illnesses are physical manifestations of a psychic scream” — might reasonably lead one to conclude that she’s not a reliable narrator.

Still, Williamson has brought attention to a genuine political and social conundrum which if not for her would go almost entirely ignored in the 2020 campaign cycle: Why, in the most prosperous country in the world, are enormous numbers of people using psychiatric drugs?

Roughly one in six Americans currently takes such a drug, and at least 40 million are on antidepressant medication alone. Rates of consumption have been climbing steadily for three decades. According to the American Psychological Association, the number of Americans on anti-depressants ballooned by 64% between 1999 and 2014.

But this hasn’t coincided with any discernible reduction in societal despair; if anything, the result appears to be the opposite. A report published last year in the medical journal The Lancet found that the massive increase in anti-depressant consumption over the past quarter-century has not produced any decline in the prevalence of mood disorders. (It has, however, produced huge profits for pharmaceutical companies.) Meanwhile, the U.S. suicide rate is at its highest level since World War II.

So what’s going on? And furthermore, why are these alarming trends so seldom discussed in political terms? After all, pharmaceutical companies have only been able to manufacture and advertise anti-depressant drugs with governmental support and subsidy of various kinds. There’s a deep public policy interest in better ascertaining the reasons why so many Americans are taking these mass-produced pills to alleviate psychological anguish — and to understand whether their anguish is actually being alleviated as intended.

Even if even if Williamson’s analysis is imbued with a kind of florid, spiritualistic rhetoric that some might (reasonably) find off-putting, she is among the few figures in national political life giving any attention to the political dimensions of the country’s hyper-medicalized mental health trajectory.

It’s not just her raising the red flags: Severe doubts about the efficacy of these drugs have been established by all manner of hard, empirical surveys and studies. As the renowned Harvard Medical School doctor Marcia Angell asked in one of her seminal works on the subject: If anti-depressants really work as the pharmaceutical giants claim, “shouldn’t we expect the prevalence of mental illness to be declining, not rising?”

Williamson caused a minor flareup last month when she asserted that anti-depressants are being systematically overprescribed for “normal human despair” — a perfectly defensible inference based on the data, but one found deeply offensive by those who believe or know that anti-depressants have helped them individually. I recently spoke to Williamson and asked how she responds to those who allege that her macro-level criticisms of these pharmacological remedies somehow deny the personal, micro-level experiences of people who claim to have benefited from the drugs.

"Oh please,” Williamson said. “What they’re denying is the experience of other people — all the people who are addicted and can’t get off.”

“After what these people [the pharmaceutical companies] did with the opioid crisis, you think they’re all just pure intent and concerned for the common good when it comes to vaccines and anti-depressants?”

As far as vaccines go, Williamson is a tad…overzealous. But in her generalized suspicion of the pharmaceutical industry, she speaks for a large number of Americans who have every reason to question whether these profit-seeking corporations are acting out of enlightened, socially-conscious benevolence. Just 30% of Americans have a positive view of pharmaceutical companies, according to Gallup’s tracking poll — the worst rating for any commercial industry.

Rather than nastily chastising people when their distrust might go a bit off the rails, wouldn’t it be more prudent to acknowledge that on a basic level, their distrustful instinct is entirely warranted?

Indeed, Bernie Sanders has to some degree echoed Williamson’s sentiment. “I worry very much that we are over-medicating kids in schools,” he recently told podcast bigwig Joe Rogan.

I was once prescribed a potent dose of the anti-depressant drug Zoloft after a 20-minute visit with a psychiatrist I had just met. Deferring to this person’s apparent expertise, I acceded and took the medication for a short time.

Only in hindsight did it become clear how bizarre the process was. How could someone who was effectively a stranger claim to diagnose a malady that supposedly existed in the deep recesses of my psyche, after what basically amounted to a rapid-fire question-and-answer session? And of course, I hadn’t considered whatever financial incentives might have been operative in the psychiatrist’s immediate decision to send me off to the pharmacy.

Reflecting on how many millions of Americans might have undergone a similarly perfunctory process is disturbing. And the futility of this approach seems to be borne out in the data.

Sure, there are plenty of anecdotes that suggest on a case-by-case basis, certain people have been helped by anti-depressants. Then again, suicide rates for teens and young adults are the highest on record; more Americans are dependent on these medications than ever before. And Marianne Williamson is supposed to be the crazy one?

Tracey writes on politics.