June 12th, 2011
There’s a gobsmacker of an article in the current New York Review of Books about the epidemic of mental illness that America is presently experiencing, or, to put it another way, the epidemic of pharmaceutical treatments for diagnosed mental disorders that America is presently financing. It seems that the psychotropic medications we have been using in vast and ever-increasing quantities over the past fifty years, the antidepressants, antipsychotics, and antianxiety nostrums that have become the mainstay of psychiatric therapy, are no more effective than placebos. In sum, we have been – surprise, surprise! – the victims of a massive fraud. Moreover, the whole edifice of medical research, which rests on a foundational distinction between placebos and therapeutic agents, shows signs of crumbling.
Placebos are used when testing drugs for safety and effectiveness. The drug is given to one group of people, and the placebo, a (supposedly) therapeutically inert substance, is given to a comparable group. In standard “double blind” controlled tests, neither group of experimental subjects knows whether they are getting the drug or the placebo, nor do the persons administering the substances to them. The idea is to promote
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