“You Have a Chemical Imbalance in Your Brain” (Big Lie No. 1)

 

My colleague Jeff Kaye PhD recommended that I read Robert Whitaker’s The Making of an Epidemic (pictured above) for insight into the scientific evidence concerning the effects of psychiatric medication. I read the entire book in one day and feel it is the most important work I’ve read in years. This and the following two posts will summarize Whitaker’s most important findings but I recommend that you read this book if you’re at all interested in or concerned about these drugs and what they actually do.  Although some sections of the book discuss neurological processes and there’s a fair amount of statistical data to support his arguments, you don’t need to be a psychologist or a physician to understand the material. For me, the experience was like reading a well-written legal thriller: I found it riveting.   As a clinician, I’ve always doubted the effectiveness claims associated with Prozac and the other so-called “anti-depressants”, viewing them as propaganda that drives profits for Big Pharma, as I’ve discussed elsewhere.  The full truth is far more disturbing.

Whitaker began as a newspaper reporter, then co-founded his own publishing company that reported on the business aspects of clinical testing for new drugs; his readers worked at pharmaceutical companies, medical schools and private medical practices, so he did not come to his subject area with an ax to grind.  He began his research for Anatomy when he discovered that as a whole, schizophrenic patients in poor countries, only 16 percent of whom were regularly given antipsychotic medication, had much better long-term outcomes than patients in developed countries who received such drugs. He set out to understand this puzzle, not to launch a crusade.  Before writing his book, he “believed that psychiatric researchers were discovering the biological causes of mental illness and that this knowledge had led to the development of a new generation of psychiatric drugs that helped ‘balance’ brain chemistry.” Many of you may believe the very same thing — not surprising, since it’s the story that has been given to us by the medical profession and regularly repeated in the media.

After painstaking research, Whitaker found that there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support the theory that mental illness is a result of an imbalance in brain chemistry. Let me repeat that: there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support the theory that mental illness is a result of an imbalance in brain chemistry.  As an example, let’s take the best known theory, that depression is caused by low serotonin levels in the neural synapses.  An entire class of drugs — the “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors” (SSRIs) inhibits the removal of serotonin from those synapses and thus ( in theory) restores normal serotonin levels.  So, if this theory is true, depressed people should have below-normal levels of 5-HIAA (serotonin is matabolized into 5-HIAA) in their cerebrospinal fluid.

Study after study has failed to find any significant difference in the 5-HIAA levels of depressed and non-depressed patients.   No correlation has been found between 5-HIAA levels and severity of depressive symptoms.  Whitaker is thorough and devastating on this particular point, exposing flawed research designs and statistical analysis in the very few studies that purport to show even a very small link between serotonin levels and depressive symptoms.  Furthermore, no correlation has been found between levels of 5-HIAA in cerebrospinal fluid and degree of response to anti-depressants.  This widely accepted theory has absolutely no basis in fact:

“‘I spent the first several years of my career doing full-time research on brain serotonin metabolism, but I never saw any convincing evidence that any psychiatric disorder, including depression, results from a deficiency of brain serotonin,” said Stanford psychiatrist David Burns in 2003 [citation omitted].  Numerous others made this same point. ‘There is no scientific evidence whatosever that clinical depression is due to any kind of biological deficit state,’ wrote Colin Ross, an associate professor of psychiatry at Southwest Medical Center in Dallas, in his 1995 book, Pseudoscience in Biological Psyciatry. [citation omitted].”

There are 100 billion neurons in the human brain.   A typical brain neuron receives input from a vast web of dendrites; it has somewhere between one and ten thousand synaptic connections, which means that as a whole, the adult brain has something like 150 trillion synapses.  How likely does it seem to you that lower levels of one (among many) neurotransmitters would be responsible for a complicated mental state such as depression?

I am NOT saying there are never any chemical irregularities in brain chemistry and I am NOT saying that SSRIs and other psychiatric meds have no effect. I’m relating to you the results of Whitaker’s exhaustive research and his irrefutable conclusion: the theory that mental illness results from an imbalance of chemicals in the brain has NO basis in scientific fact. And yet, despite this fact, despite all the evidence that dis-proves this link and disputes the value of SSRIs, the low-serotonin theory of depression lives on.

In the next post, I’ll discuss how and why this is possible.

Finding Your Own Way:

Buy this book.  If you click on the link above, I’ll actually earn something for referring you to Amazon but if you can find it cheaper somewhere else, buy it there instead.  These posts are not about my earning a few bucks; they’re about informing you of a major fraud that has been perpetrated upon us by the APA and Big Pharma.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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60 Responses to “You Have a Chemical Imbalance in Your Brain” (Big Lie No. 1)

  1. lifelong says:

    Wow – how very, very interesting, and very, very disturbing. I am more than pleased I chose the path of Psychotherapy to work through my depression, rather than ‘buying’ the line of “I have a chemical imbalance in my brain” and thus choosing to ‘mask’ it with drugs.

  2. zardoya says:

    Thanks for relaying this information on to readers. I am very pleased to learn of this book and your observations. I suspect many may be examining SSRI use closer and making a more educated decision as to whether to pursue this line of “treatment” for depression.

  3. Dan Williams says:

    As a clinician and a prescriber I very much agree. As most issues in medicine there is not a black and white scenario. ADHD meds are grossly over prescribed. Anti-psychotic meds clearly have their place and their efficacy. We rely too much on the infamous SSRI. As a whole we have become a lazy nation looking for the fix NOW and with little effort. It becomes very difficult in the real world to convince a patient who has been persuaded by the media and/or peers not to try that SSRI. I applaud your work and trying to get this issue more to the forefront.

    Sincerely,
    Dr. Dan Peace and Healing

  4. Z says:

    Isn’t this all related to the rise of managed care (as well as to big pharma / and some more elements)? Cheaper to prescribe than to use other therapies, and lucrative to prescribe new, non generic drugs to larger and larger populations?

  5. Kathleen Miller says:

    I hesitate to comment without having read the book, but as a person who has lived most of my life with severe depression and suicidal tendancies – I have some experience with anti-depressants. I had tried the older types of anti-depressants and found them useless. I tried religions, yoga, acupuncture, philosophies, hypnosis, diet changes, various modes of psychotherapy. In fact, I spend tens of thousands of dollars and years of time in psychotherapy. While I found therapy to be enlightening and a few of the therapists to actually be supportive, I was, to one degree or another, always depressed. I was desparate. When I was prescribed prozac by my family doctor, it turned out to be a literal life saver. It was only after I had been on that anti-depressant that I came to know what it actually felt like to NOT be depressed.

    If there is no such thing as brain chemistry imbalance, then that is fine. But, all I know is that I am alive today and relatively happy.

    On a side note, I have come to suspect that my depression may be somehow related to sex hormones – since it started at rather abruptly at puberty, was somewhat connected to my menstrual cycles, and now that I am in menopause – it seems I have “grown out” of it. I don’t know of any studies regarding this factor – and if so, this aspect is probably not helpful to males.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      It’s impossible to compare anecdotal evidence with large-scale studies that include data across groups; I have no wish to convince you that your meds aren’t helping you; rather, I want to inform people about this book and these studies in order to counteract the misinformation repeated by mainstream media and the psychiatric community.

    • Anonymous says:

      i have postpartum depression and it is very connected ti my menstrual cycle. i have a very difficult pms and period.

  6. Joe says:

    I have not read the book, but I certainly plan to now. I am curious why you omitted citations. What you wrote is great, but when I see “citation omitted,” I become very skeptical. The first thing that goes through my mind is, “The citation wouldn’t take much more space than writing ‘citation omitted’.” Then, I think, “…. WHY did he omit the citation?” I’m just curious. Frankly, I’m of the same mind when it comes to pharma, particularly in psychiatry. The whole specialty is on a shaky foundation since so much of its “evidence base” is centered on research that was funded by pharma.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Laziness, more than anything else! Each of those citations is a footnote, which would have involved going to the end of the book and typing it out. Nothing shifty going on, here I promise! It’s all there is the book and I’m only doing my best to make people aware of it.

  7. Lynne Gordon says:

    I am constantly amazed at how many people are surprised when Big Pharma is caught red-handed lying and manipulating test results and research.

    More people should understand that our own FDA does absolutely no tests and research of its own when Big Pharma asks for permission to promote a new drug to get us hooked. All the testing is done by the pharmaceutical company, all the doctors who do the testing and research are bought and paid for by Big Pharma. It has always been this way.

    Additionally with the revolving door policy between the FDA and Big Pharma, they always have their man at the helm of the FDA to ensure that their objectives do not meet with an resistance.

    Big Pharma owns the FDA, the AMA and every other medical regulating body on the face of the earth. And why not? If you had a business making $8,000,000.00 every six hours, wouldn’t you do whatever is necessary to protect it?

    And it gets worse, click on my name and read, “The Whore Within Babylon”.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Lynne, sorry for the delay in posting your comment; it wound up in my spam filter. I couldn’t agree more. And even the tests that are submitted to the FDA cover side effects that result after no more than six weeks or so, nothing long term. The FDA “relies” on the drug companies to keep it informed about longer term results. As if!

  8. Anon says:

    Interesting and disturbing indeed. I do wonder though about why there seems to be a change in behavior after such drugs are taken. My brother was diagnosed with moderate to severe ADHD, and when he forgets to take his medication, he gets hyper, spacey, and really annoying (in the sense that he doesn’t listen to others). When he takes his meds, all of these “symptoms” disappear, and he can concentrate better at school. What gives? Are these meds really placebos and it is all in his mind, or do they work?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      It’s difficult to sort out and I do not believe it’s all placebo effect. A lot of what you see when people forget to take their meds are symptoms of withdrawal from the drug, rather than a return of the original symptoms. What does your brother say about the experience of being on the drugs, beyond being able to concentrate better? Some people find the side effects as bad as the original symptoms. There are two issues that concern me most: (1) the use of the drug seems to prevent people from developing other coping skills, so that they have to remain on it for life; and (2) the long-term side effects are only now beginning to be understood and they are serious, including neurological damage, cognitive impairment and the shortening of one’s life. I believe there are other ways of learning to cope with ADHD that don’t have these serious drawbacks.

  9. Karen says:

    I haven’t read the book but I’ve read articles basically saying the same thing. One thing that concerns me is that having been giving Prozac or other SSRI’s, they induced a psychotic episode which led to the doctors determing a bipolar diagnosis and that anti-depressants were the wrong medicine; a kind of backdoor way of diagnosing. With a new non-SSRI medicine (Lamictil) the depression and anxiety was abated even though a degree of lack of motivation and thinking too much still exists. So it puzzles me what’s going on. For that matter, LSD can cause someone to have a psychotic episode, racing thoughts, etc. It concerns me that SSRI’s incorrectly given could have a dangerous effect. Basically being taken off those and sedated with lots of sleep made the psychotic episode stop.

    I also think people are being over-prescribed SSRI’s; I read how someone was given them during their very depressing grieving process after a death in the family. Death is a normal part of our lives that we will continually experience so this temporary “happy pill” rather than learning ways of coping, as you say, becomes a crutch. I’ve also known people given such low dosages of Prozac that it would seem more of a placebo. A new article today has a PDF attachment of what drugs are being spent on the most, Seroquel being one: http://healthland.time.com/2011/04/19/americas-10-most-popular-prescription-drugs/

    The drugs companies are making out well but it’s troublesome. I can understand people who have been depressed for years, often to the debilitating point of curling up on the couch for hours, but we may becoming a nation of emotional wimps, so to speak. But the Lamictil has worked and counseling has never worked well for me, let alone it’s expensive and insurance wasn’t adequate. I’m concerned, but I do know the medicine doesn’t help underlying issues of self-esteem, motivation, thoughts such as ‘nobody really cares about me or knows me’, etc. that medicine can’t help. It’s confusing and people want to believe they have a chemical imbalance disease that they can’t control, and then the stigma associated with mental problems doesn’t help.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      That’s the thing — what do you do for those people who have been depressed for years, without the financial resources or insurance coverage for good therapy? While I still don’t like it, I can understand why so many physicians, dedicated to relieving the suffering of their patients, write so many prescriptions for SSRIs. But as you’re finding, those drugs may alleviate the depression for a time but they do nothing to address its meaning, or to help the person develop the mental and emotional capacity to cope with it.

  10. Cathy Sander says:

    If anything, the normal state of the brain is disequilibrium. In a chemical sense (which I don’t think these advocates of mediation ironically have),

    chemical equilibrium=brain death.

    I wonder how much abuse of chemical knowledge we can tolerate…and it’s sad, given the fact that this year’s the International Year of Chemistry, and I do care about it :(

    Nevertheless, I do think currently that such chemical interventions are (borrowing from economics) a blunt instrument, and frankly an insult to our innate biochemistry which we have inherited from millions of years of struggle from our distant ancestors…which we barely understand.

    Sorry for talking passionately about all of this…but I do know that not all researchers in mental health think about mediation in an exploitative fashion, and this shouting of using a pill for all sorts of problems, regardless of whether it actually helps, makes people have distrust in psychiatry.

  11. Kym says:

    “You Have a Chemical Imbalance in Your Brain” (Big Lie No. 1)”

    No. Look up Parkinson’s disease and dopamine.

    It’s one thing to argue against the effectiveness of SSRIs or dopamine agonists in the treatment of depression or anxiety disorders, and quite another to suggest that depression – or any other mental state, including love and pleasure – lack neurological correlates. Thinking and acting have neurological correlates (and consequences; thus the effectiveness of psychotherapy).

    If one wants to argue that drugs aren’t always the best course in the treatment of depression, that’s solid ground. But a cursory Google Scholar search makes a very fast and easy lie of your sweeping (and imo irresponsible) use of the word, “lie”.

  12. kyle says:

    I 100% agree that there must be a personal mental effort to avoid depression/ anxiety…. HOWEVER… have you ever heard of neurologists and brain scans??? To say that there is no such thing as a chemical imbalance in the brain couldn’t be more wrong and
    Naive (with all do respect). Treatment is most effective
    With a combination of medication and therapy / mental training. I
    Personally have found that therapy and training helps tremendously
    , however, if a Person has Bipolar disorder, a medication regimen is essential because there IS in fact a chemical imbalance in the brain. ( and that is scientifically proven)

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I didn’t say that there is no “chemical imbalance” in the brain. I said that it’s not the cause of the depression. There is no evidence to prove that depression or bipolar disorder is caused by a chemical imbalance. Thinking, behaving, emoting and defending in particular ways over a lifetime will alter your brain chemistry (although I wouldn’t call it an “imbalance”), just as people who meditate regularly can alter their brain scans. There’s a lot of confusion in this area, and a lot of pseudo-science.

      • MA says:

        I have to say that I come from a family where all of us have suffered depression or a bipolar disease. I had treatment of both psychotherapy and medication for depression in my specific case. It also started at puberty and I have to say that every time I would say: “I don’t need medication. I’m fine.” I would slip again and fall into a depression mode where nothing would matter. I think there has to be a constant in some of us that require medication and also have seen it in some members of my family that have stopped the medication and ended in a psychiatric hospital. To generalize and call this a “lie” so assertively is most certainly delicate because some people that are clinically depressed or have a hereditary problem of this type may read this and say: “Oh, it’s a lie so I’m not taking the medication anymore.” And that same person may end up in a hospital or dead.

        • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

          You should read up on habituation to anti-depressants, and how going off the meds quite regularly leads to the kind of disaster you’re describing. It’s often regarded as evidence that the anti-depressant was “working” when, in fact, it’s withdrawal, and the body’s catastrophic response to the absence of chemicals that have altered it.

  13. Karen says:

    I’m a 66 year old woman and was diagnosed with a chemical imbalance years ago. I’ve tried any number of anti-depressants. I’ve been on Venlafaxine XR 225 mg for many years now. After reading the withdrawa l symptoms of this drug, I’m very concerned. I’ve had several strokes and have been diagnosed with lupus (my blood doesn’t clot propely). I’m taking a thinner for this. After reading your artical,I really want to get off the Venlafaxine and purchase the book you suggested.

  14. michael says:

    i would disagree on there being no chemical imbalance. the brain is a complex mix of areas and chemical and neurons. any trauma or genetic predisposition can cause analomies. i have arthritis and suffer neuropathy however i have anxiety but not depression. how can two people who grew up the same environment, behave differently, have different interests, different abilities etc. ok environment can shape people to a degree but ultimately it is literally how you are wired up as they say that derermines how you deal with a situation. any damage to nerves will ultimately damages neurotransmissions and the chemicals in the nerves and blood. ok people might think negatively, but this doesnt mean they get depressed. its not as though people sit there wanting to be depressed and they eventually become it, many become depressed completely out of the blue. anxiety can be mental but also purely physical like in autimmune conditions, there is no control of it. you can think anxiously but this doesnt mean you develop physical attributes, it depends on how you brain and body are wired together. these are complex processes and there are so few explanations. as with autoimmune conditions what makes some immune systems in some people attack their own cells yet for others there is nothing, some form of malfunctioning must be the reason, whether that is genetic or through trauma. chemical imbalances are in many autoimmune conditions either under or overproduction, it might not always be an imbalance but sometimes, how those chemicals are received, malfunctions in the nerves and how they connect etc. getting people to think a certain way and that will cure them ignores the fact some people go from extreme elated happy moods to low depressed ones. these processes like neurological ones are internal, you cabnot switch them on and off, all people have various moods, although some peoples are much more wide ranging and abnormal in intensity and range than others

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      To say that mental illness alters brain chemistry is very different from saying that depression is the result of a “chemical imbalance.” The chemical imbalance theory of depression is a highly simplistic theory which holds that it’s a deficiency of serotonin that leads to depression. There is no evidence to support this theory. None. I absolutely believe that the brains of people who suffer from anxiety and depression are altered in profound and complex ways, but it’s not something you can fix by upping a certain chemical in the brain. It’s way more complicated than that.

  15. kirsten says:

    I have all my phyciatrists tell me i have a chemical imbalance in my brain and that i am clinically depressed. One of the big reasons why i was diagnosed this way is because depression runs in my family. One of my phyciatrists told me that the only way i will be able to get any better is if I take an anti-depressent. I never liked the thought of taking anything that has an effect on the brain..but i was willing at that point to try anything to feel better. I am 17 (still obviously under age) so my mother talked me into it and i took prozak for about a month. I did not like it..i was already showing signs of symptoms. i was worried so i looked up prozak online. i was shocked at the disturbing things prozak could cause. I will not go into detail with that..but I was worried for myself now and in the future..especially if i uped the dose (which i was soon about to do). So i stopped taking it. Now of course my psychiatrist is telling my mother that i need to take an anti-depressent other wise i will never be able to get any better. Now my mother is trying to force me to take it. I have been trying to work out my issues myself (which i have been doing since i was 14). I do not want to mask up my emotions with medicine..but i really do not know what to do. I do have depression and anxiety..but it is not nearly as bad as it was before (which again i am not going to go into detail about. At least i now have proof there is no such thing as a “chemical imbalance” causing depression. I believe what was and is causing it was things that have happened in the past

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      It shows a lot of strength at 17 to stand up to the authority of your mother and psychiatrist. What the doctor is telling you is the standard medical line these days, and it is shocking how few M.D.s actually question the “chemical imbalance” theory. It sounds to me as if you probably need a good psychotherapist who can help you sort through your feelings about what “happened in the past.” Stick to your guns, don’t let them put you on drugs, but you probably need some kind of professional help for a time. Look for someone who is “psycho-dynamic” in his or her orientation.

  16. Eric says:

    Not trying to argue but if what you are saying is correct, why do drugs like 5-HTP and the like help with depression? Is it just a placebo effect and really does not raise serotonin levels? And if it does then there MUST be some relation between the two…?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      If you take an aspirin because your head aches and then you feel better, do you attribute the cause of your headache to a lack of aspirin in your brain? SSRIs are central nervous system stimulants — ‘uppers’, like cocaine and amphetamines. Yes, they can make you feel better (for a time) but that doesn’t mean your depression was caused by low levels of serotonin.

      • Eric says:

        But there is also a difference in masking a problem and fixing a problem… even if it is not a permanent fix. So your example of the aspirin, although a good one, is not the same thing at all. It would be like if you having a heart attack, taking Aspirin can actually save your life (temp). But the underlying cause in this case is obviously not lack of aspirin. As a Doctor you must believe that the body is an amazing thing and by giving it what it needs it can sometimes heal itself. The hard part is finding out what it needs. So whereas you may be right about the serotonin levels being, or rather NOT being, the cause for depression, it very well could still be a chemical imbalance.. right?

        • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

          It would be helpful you would read up on neurotransmitters and brain chemistry instead of speculating about possibilities. The brain is an enormously complicated structure, and to talk about a “chemical imbalance” is highly simplistic. It might play to the masses, but if you do your homework, you’ll soon begin to find the theory an embarrassment. Especially now that studies on brain development have shown that failures in early attachment lead to the mass death of brain cells and failure of the brain structures to develop normally, the “chemical imbalance” theory is simply not credible. You might want to take a look at my discussion of Allan Schore’s work on attachment theory. He’s a neurologist at UCLA and his findings are sobering.

          • Eric says:

            Wow typical doctor, turns into an arrogant prick when someone starts to ask questions. You just lost my vote.

            • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

              I apologize for writing back in that vein. If you look through the series of comments to my post, you’ll see you’re not the first person to challenge this view and I suppose I get weary of it. Here’s what I think: neither of us is a scientist with the background necessary to evaluate the merits of any particular theory on a chemical/neurological/physiological basis, so there’s not much point in you and me arguing the viability of one theory versus another. What makes sense to me is to read the experts and then decide for yourself. From my reading of those experts, I have come to believe that there is NO evidence to support the theory that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in your brain, and a great deal of evidence demonstrating the very serious side-effects of using SSRIs, including permanent neurological damage. You’re free to believe whatever you like, but I think an opinion should be based on the evidence and on the opinions of people who know more than I do.

  17. Brandi says:

    Hello, I recently ran acroos your post and loved it, but I do have a few questions for you.
    I am currently a student working my phd in psychology. My question for you is this; I am learning about biopsychology right now and everything they have us studying say that there is a link to chemical imblance with mental illness, bow is this correct or is this the drug companies having an affect on the way one studies psychology today? I believe that there are many different ways to over come depression and one is not running to medication, medication is simply a cover up of dealing with the actual problem. So I am asking you is there any more information on this subject that you can direct me too. I can not seem to find the link to this book you are spaking of. The only book I can find by Mr. Whitaker is “Anatomy of an Epidemic”. Thank you for your time.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      ‘Anatomy of an Epidemic’ is the book you should read. Mr. Whitaker will be able to answer your questions much better than I can. But suffice it to say that there is NO evidence of a ‘chemical imbalance’, however much that has become accepted as true within the medical and psychological communities. It’s a highly simplistic idea, and the reality of the transformations in brain anatomy and neuro-chemistry as result of emotional trauma and faulty parenting in early development are highly complex. You might want to take a look at my series of posts on <a href='http://www.afterpsychotherapy.com/attachment-theory-and-shame&#039; where I discuss this issue further.

  18. Steve says:

    Dr. Burgo,
    Let me preface that I’m not a expert at anything. I agree that folks want easy fixes and meds are far over prescribed. I agree that traumatic experiences, chemical/drug exposure, etc can damage a persons brain so that it doesn’t “behave normally”.

    However, for those whose brain is now damaged/malformed, what now? Therapy is the one true god? What if the damage to one’s brain and psyche is such that they can’t use the tools you give them? But with adjunctive treatment of medication they have enough clarity or drive (whatever) to move forward?

    I don’t take psych drugs but I do take gabapentin and pain meds to deal with the symptomatic pain from nerve damage. These fix nothing, and they have side effects: but they allow me to perform physical therapy, interact with others, and have some hope. Prescribed properly I see the psych drugs performing a similar role, as I have seen in my own family. I have also seen them abused by dr’s and patients (again in my own family).

    It seems your stand is all or nothing, which is as disconcerting as big pharma’s lie that a pill will make you whole. Additionally, as flawed as the FDA regulation is, and as money driven as the industry is, not all clinical trials are a sham. I have worked in an FDA regulated industry long enough to know this to be false.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      My position is not “all or nothing”; I have stated repeatedly that I believe psychiatric meds have their place, esp. in short-term treatment in order to stabilize people. But when longitudinal studies show that there is NO difference in benefit between taking anti-depressants and a placebo after 6-8 weeks, and ample evidence of the very serious side-effects, my position is hardly radical.

      I personally have never encountered a client unable to make use of psychotherapy, although I suppose they might exist. And it’s not a question of therapy as “the one true God” (kind of a hostile accusation, don’t you think?); it’s just that I don’t know and have never heard of anything else that helps.

      Also, I think that your analogy to pain meds doesn’t work. You have nerve damage which nothing can fix so ameliorating your severe pain makes sense, despite the side effects; in my experience, therapy can do quite a bit to help, but you have to tolerate the pain involved.

      • Anonymous says:

        Dr.,
        After reading more of your website I have a somewhat different understanding of your stance: what I posted was purely based on this particular thread, and I apologize for that.
        I feel that your belief in short term medication usage, when possible, is ideal and very sane. However, I personally know more than one person that would have taken their life if it weren’t for some of these medications taken on a longer term basis (and I know some that might have taken their life because of the medicines). These same people were concurrently active in therapy, and therapy was indeed helping them.

        Perhaps the statistics reported for the long term efficacy of the medicines is correct and the people I know are anomalies. Or perhaps the studies that produced the statistics were flawed. Statistics, although factual numbers, can be manipulated to provide what the reporter wants them to ~ it depends on what is being tested (remember your comments about clinical trials, etc?).

        Anyways, I applaud your work to help people find mental health and happiness. On that we can agree fully.

  19. Anne says:

    I am 58 years old, and I have suffered with depression and suicidal thoughts all my life. Would I take my life? No . . . because my faith and religious beliefs won’t allow me – and because even if it did, I still wouldn’t because I hate to “lose” – being a control freak and all LOL

    I haven’t read the book, but my initial gut reaction is this: It is difficult enough for people with anxiety issues, panic attacks, etc. to finally ask for help. Any psychiatric disorder is immediately labeled “mental disease”, and said diagnosis stings. Therefore, when articles like yours are published, you have one well-respected doctor saying “do this”, and then you (in this case) chime in with “don’t”.

    I would hope the psychiatric field has more on the ball than shoving pills at us. If it doesn’t, those of us who suffer, will continue to do so, in silence and with no help.

    FOOTNOTE: My psychologist has suggested I speak with the psychiatrist as there are a number of “pills” to choose from. Since I have epilepsy and it’s been controlled since 1989, I am hesitant to take anything. For the time being, he has helped me with relaxation techniques and deep breathing (amazing what that has done for me in 2 days). I don’t know if I’m just having a brief reprieve and the panic attacks will return, much worse. But I don’t want to be second guessing my doctor.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      On the contrary, you should be second-guessing your doctor. We put far too much faith in medical doctors, who have also been taken in by the public relations push by the pharmaceutical industry to popularize the chemical imbalance theory. Read Whitaker’s book, please! I’m currently reading Peter Breggin’s book, Your Drug May Be Your Problem — I’d recommend that one as well.

      • JLSeagull says:

        Dr. Breggin is wonderful and I recommend his books as well. I learned that my drug- and my doctor- were my problems! Got rid of both and life is so much better now. I posted more below.

  20. B says:

    Hello,
    Based on reading your article and the above dialogue, I understand that your position is that chemicals in the brain cannot be the cause for depression. I’m sorry, but this is just flat out not true. The real problem is, and what I do agree with, is that there is no scientific evidence that checmicals in the brain cause depression. The reason for that is, the med world has not found a reliable enough system to accurately measure chemical levels in the brain. Yes, as you mentioned, you can measure other metabolic molecules in the urine, blood, spine, etc. that are associated with the neurotransmitters; but due to the fact that you can’t take a black and white reading directly from the brain, people like you will say there is no proof. BS. There is a ton of proof that serotonin, dopamine, GABA, among others all play a significant role in mood and feelings in humans. I can make the same arguement that there is no proof that deficient levels are not the cause of depression, bc it can’t measured. For me though, and most people with these conditions, the proof comes in the result. I have taken 5-HTP, a nuturally occurring substance in the body, to raise my serotonin levels, with great success in relieving depression.

    The fact of the matter is the whole psychiatry field is discredited bc of lack of diagnostic tests used to support treatment. The reason for that is, although there has been great progress in the last decade, mankind has not yet produced successful “scientific” tests to measure the biochemistry of the human brain. I think everyone is hopeful that this research will continue to progress. It is however well known that neurotransmitters in the brain greatly influence mood and emotion, and altering those levels can create both positive and negative outcomes.
    To say they are not or cannot be related is just not correct.

  21. Carlos V says:

    Symptoms are not diseases, psychiatry is a scam.

    Books about it. (most in English, some in Spanish)

    http://www.holoxtalent.com/apps/blog/el-mito-de-las-enfermedades-mentales-y

  22. Tara Moore says:

    I would like to purchase the book

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      You can search the title on Amazon.com and order it there. Or you can click on the link here on my website and it will take you directly to the order page on Amazon.

  23. Heather Wright says:

    I have never been a believer of anti-depressants. I recently went to the doctor for being tired most of the time and having a lingering “blah” feeling – her automatic response? You guessed it. Lexapro. If that doesn’t work, Welbutrin. It’s like one right after another until we finally give up on it and just deal with being depressed.

    I think there’s a lot of truth here in what you’re saying. These doctors make us think too much about all of this and medications and that’s what’s actually making us depressed. How can they diagnose you (mine was dysthymia after 3 minutes) with such a quick visit? Also, why hasn’t anyone come up with a blood test or something to prove these theories of low serotonin levels yet after all these years of depression?

    Coming up in October will be 3 years since my father passed away. I think I have dealt with it pretty well, each year gets a little easier. This doctor actually said to me, “Let’s get you started on these pills before October gets here.” Like I’m suddenly gonna have a breakdown after 3 years.

    Depression is a mind set. We get stuck in it with our thoughts. Think positive, and go out and get some sun.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Yes, but also — grief is something we need to go through, not medicate away. I’m under the impression that you’ve been mourning a father you cared about; isn’t that normal? Why is that a medical condition we need to treat with drugs?

      • Heather Wright says:

        Yes, you’re right – I’ve been dealing with it in a normal way. I don’t believe any of this “depression” is a medical condition we need to treat.

  24. Maddy says:

    A couple of things:
    1) No one looks at actual medical causes for depression and anxiety. I’m not talking about chemical imbalances in the brain, but actual medical illness that can manifest themselves as looking like mental illnesses. If someone sees a therapist about for depression and anxiety, I hope the therapist also encourages the patient to make sure he or she is screened for medical illnesses, such as hypothyroidism, low testosterone, etc. which can cause depression and require treatment in order for the depression to get better. If someone has chronic pain that keeps him from sleeping for weeks or months, the sleep and the chronic pain need to be dealt with; no amount of psychoanalysis is going to resolve these problems. A person should be screened for sleep disorders and reasons for the chronic pain, and lack of sleep long term can make ANYONE feel crazy.

    2) I had been on psychotropic drugs for many years and never returned to my previous self when I stopped them. No one believes me when I complain that I believe they caused some damage to me…even to my brain. I do believe they did something to me. I now literally feel sick and my depression now is so very different than my depression in the past and it feels like therapy alone will not help me like it had in the past. I do believe I was injured by these meds, but there is no one I can find who believes me and who will help me. I wonder if the damage is reversable? Instead of getting better after having stopped the meds, I’ve been getting worse and worse and worse all the while I’ve been receiving psychotherapy. I do believe something is organically wrong. A psychiatrist I saw today totally dismissed my concerns about what I think these meds did to me and insisted that there was nothing wrong at all. I do feel hopeless that I’ll find the help that I need, as long as people think it’s impossible to be harmed by long-term use of psychotropic meds (and I’ve not only taken SSRIs, but I’ve taken a variety of mood stabilizers, anti-psychotics and SNRI’s.)

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I agree that one has to screen for organic illness that presents as depression. I personally have seen such cases where someone clearly suffered from hypothyroidism. As for lasting neurological damage from psychiatric meds, there’s plenty of evidence suggesting that there may be permanent consequences to long-term use; the question is — how long were you on these drugs and in what dosages? The longer and the more of them, the more likely there is to have been neurological impairment.

  25. Rachael says:

    There’s a factor keeps getting left out: if you’re at all an animal lover, do not and I mean DO NOT ever read the reports on how they induce depression in animals, especially dogs and monkeys, in order to test or get clinical approval for these drugs. And I don’t even mean the ones done by animal welfare groups, I mean the cold hard lab reports and abstracts.

    Suffice to say these are animals without the kind of abstract thinking (like imagination and extrapolation) that plays a part in human depression on an everyday level, and therefore the regimes of mistreatment that are used to make these animals feel total despair are gruelling, even nauseating to read. Imagine what it takes to make a dog or monkey no longer even want to sit up and eat when it’s hungry.

    And this happens to vast numbers of animals day in, day out, without mercy until the animal either succumbs to a side-effect of the drug treatments, or is killed to examine its body and brain structure.

    If you have doubts about some, not even all, use of animals in labs, the work done in this field of psychiatric pharmaceuticals is sufficiently terrible (in that it attacks the very spirit of the animal, until it’s completely broken) that ANY evidence that the drugs are ineffective in most cases should have you writing to your MP/Congressman and asking them to take some kind of action on this.

    This isn’t a case that well-meaning if greedy companies over-sell a product – it’s tens of thousands of animals intentionally driven to madness and total despair, and beyond, with no comprehension of why and no possible way out except eventual death every year in the name of profit. Just another thing I wanted to mention there as a factor for anyone weighing up the pros and cons of this whole issue.

  26. JLSeagull says:

    SSRIs are utter garbage. I suffered from panic attacks in the wake of 9/11 and seeking help, I ended up in the offices of one of those so-called “renowned experts” in psycho-pharmacology. He promptly put me on, and kept me on the sedative Xanax and various SSRI drugs over a period of 10 years. He insisted that I had a “genetic disease” and that my brain needed these drugs to correct an imbalance that I would have for the rest of my life. He refused to refer me to a therapist, telling me that I was not a good candidate for therapy since my problem was chemical in nature. So I spent the next 10 years as an unhappy zombie and actually learned to lie to him just to keep him from increasing my dosages- until I decided to kill myself with those very same drugs. After a stint in the emergency room, I weaned myself off of them (not with his help), and have not touched them since. Prescribing these without concurrent therapy should be illegal, if not unethical.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      These stories make me want to scream. I’ll bet that with some supportive psychotherapy, you could’ve worked through the trauma and never taken drugs.

  27. Initially NO says:

    Chemical imbalance theories don’t make a lot of sense to me. When I studied acting, I leant how to trigger a cry, relax my throat to make my voice deeper, trick my body into feeling warm for a scene when the set was freezing… The brain is interesting, it is not a test tube of simple chemical reactions, it’s very complicated and when things get damaged or twisted, they take a while to repair. Exploring things in a safe environment works for me (peer-support or an understanding art therapist, never a psychiatrist!)
    In families siblings take on different roles and thus have different experiences. They also have innately different and similar coping mechanisms, just as they have similar and different interests.
    I had a mother who would have suicidal angry outbursts every fortnight or so (undiagnosed PTSD from physical childhood abuse, mainly). I felt obliged to calm her and stop her harming herself, by showing my love for her. Both my sisters didn’t help much, but had fights with her and they are prone to angry outbursts, which are considered ‘normal’. Both my brothers who helped a bit, as adults, have sought medication for ‘depression’ but do not have angry outbursts. They were not totally happy with the medicine. It did things like give them incontinence, chronic fatigue and weight gain. Very embarrassing, especially when you’re still young!
    Transgenerational trauma, is an obvious cause of what my siblings and I suffered. But, unlike them, I didn’t have a choice of choosing my medicine, because my reaction was not to have angry outburst and not to be depressed. I didn’t want to be like my mother. I didn’t want to put others through that. I studied acting so I could get my emotions out into characters. I then also put those bruises on my psyche outside myself and got pretty much the worst diagnosis you can get: schizophrenia. I did try anti-depressants to counter the neuroleptic slug drugs, but it made things even worse.
    An ex- flat mate who liked to try every pill he could get his hands on was keen to try the anti-depressants thinking they’d get him ‘high’ and they left him moaning in bed all day. Ha ha. He couldn’t sell those on the street any more than the neuroleptics. They are not fun. Plus, giving anti-depressants to suicidal people is really irresponsible, seeing sometimes the packet warns that they may cause depression, and they’re harmful to OD on.

  28. lisa says:

    After years on anti-depressants I was taken to a well-known psychiatric “brain” research hospital and the well known psycopharmachologist put me on a “cocktail of meds which
    followed a 15 min. diagnosis. After a haze of 15 years I found a new Dr. who agreed to help me and led me to come down on my meds-I wanted all gone. The meds had its side effects and I fear some damage was done. I wrote to a Dr.J who was a cousin and he said ,”I do believe people can live a drug free life. To be able to do this you need to have toolst to self regulate your emotions…
    anxieties and impulses,cognitive tools etc. I will hope that these people who dispense such
    medications take a look at what they are doing-for good or almighty dollar.

  29. lisa says:

    Read the Making of an epidemic, Your drug may be your problem, and tried to plow through excerpts on Attachment theory .
    Thank you so much for recommending these works. I made a decision months ago to come off
    these “things” It will take a long time but I prefer therapy to the terrible effects of these drugs.
    I probably have damaged my brain in some way. The here , “take one” is so much easier to do
    than tackling the problems.
    If you had not suggested these works I would still be lost.

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