NPR Embarrassed by Psychiatrist Host: Bad Apple or Bad Barrel?

National Public Radio announced on November 21, 2008 that it had fired psychiatrist Frederick Goodwin and would be terminating his program “The Infinite Mind.” Goodwin was released after NPR learned that he had received at least $1.3 million from drug companies between 2000 and 2007. In the 2008 ongoing Congressional investigation of psychiatry, Goodwin is the most recent prominent psychiatrist exposed for either unethical or, in some cases, illegal financial relationships with drug companies.

During the last decade, Goodwin’s “The Infinite Mind” aired weekly in more than 300 radio markets. The program received major financial support from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. “The Infinite Mind” billed itself as “public radio’s most honored and listened to health and science program,” but on November 21, 2008 the New York Times reported:

In a program broadcast on Sept. 20, 2005, Dr. Goodwin warned that children with bipolar disorder who are left untreated could suffer brain damage, a controversial view. “But as we’ll be hearing today,” Dr. Goodwin reassured his audience, “modern treatments — mood stabilizers in particular — have been proven both safe and effective in bipolar children.” That very day, GlaxoSmithKline paid Dr. Goodwin $2,500 to give a promotional lecture for its mood stabilizer drug, Lamictal, at the Ritz Carlton Golf Resort in Naples, Fla. Indeed, Glaxo paid Dr. Goodwin more than $329,000 that year for promoting Lamictal, records given Congressional investigators show.

Goodwin claims that NPR was aware of his financial relationship with drug companies, but his show’s producer Bill Lichtenstein said that he had called Goodwin earlier this year and asked him “point-blank” if he was receiving funding directly or indirectly from pharmaceutical companies and Goodwin’s answer was, “No.” While it is not certain as to who is lying in this instance, Goodwin’s assertion that not treating children diagnosed with bipolar disorder results in brain damage has no scientific basis; in fact, there is evidence that psychiatric medication can, in some cases, cause brain damage.

This is not the first time Frederick Goodwin’s embarrassment of a high-profile employer resulted in his job termination. On February 28, 1992, the New York Times reported the following about Goodwin, “The director of the Federal Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration resigned today amid a new round of criticism for his comments that appeared to suggest a scientific link between the violent behavior of monkeys and the social problems of inner cities.” After Goodwin was forced to resign for what his critics in Congress and the media believed were racist remarks, he was appointed as director of the National Institute of Mental Health.

Goodwin has not been psychiatry’s only public relations disaster in 2008, as Congressional investigators have exposed several other renowned psychiatrists for improper financial relationships with drug companies.The New York Times on June 8, 2008 reported:

A world-renowned Harvard child psychiatrist whose work has helped fuel an explosion in the use of powerful antipsychotic medicines in children earned at least $1.6 million in consulting fees from drug makers from 2000 to 2007 but for years did not report much of this income to university officials. . . . By failing to report income, the psychiatrist, Dr. Joseph Biederman, and a colleague in the psychiatry department at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Timothy E. Wilens, may have violated federal and university research rules designed to police potential conflicts of interest.

Congressional investigators discovered that two of Biederman’s colleagues in the psychiatry department at Harvard Medical School, Timothy Wilens and Thomas Spencer, received an additional $2.6 million from drug companies from 2000 to 2007.
Recently, emails inside Johnson & Johnson (manufacturer of the powerful antipsychotic drug Risperdal) regarding Biederman were made public as a result of suits brought by parents against Johnson & Johnson and other antipsychotic manufacturers, claiming that their children were harmed by these drugs whose risks the companies minimized. The New York Times on November 25, 2008 reported:

In one November 1999 e-mail, John Bruins, a Johnson & Johnson marketing executive, begs his supervisors to approve a $3,000 check to Dr. Biederman in payment for a lecture he gave at the University of Connecticut. “Dr. Biederman is not someone to jerk around,” Mr. Bruins wrote. “He is a very proud national figure in child psych and has a very short fuse.” Mr. Bruins wrote that Dr. Biederman was furious after Johnson & Johnson rejected a request that Dr. Biederman had made to receive a $280,000 research grant. “I have never seen someone so angry,” Mr. Bruins wrote.

In October 2008, Congressional investigators disclosed that one of psychiatry’s most influential researchers, Charles Nemeroff of Emory University, had received more than $2.8 million from drug companies between 2000 to 2007 and had failed to report at least $1.2 million of that income to his university and also appeared to have violated federal research rules. And other less prominent psychiatrists researchers with similar ties to drug companies have also been exposed by Congressional investigators.
Earlier in 2008, Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) was particular troubled by what investigators told him about psychiatry’s premier professional organization, the American Psychiatric Association (APA), described by the New York Times as “the voice of establishment psychiatry.” After he learned that the president-elect of the APA, Alan Schatzberg of Stanford University, had $4.8 million stock holdings in a drug development company and that the APA itself was heavily dependent on drug-company financing, Grassley wrote a letter to the APA stating, “I have come to understand that money from the pharmaceutical industry can shape the practices of nonprofit organizations that purport to be independent in their viewpoints and actions.”

Recent studies reveal some of how drug company money has compromised the objectivity of drug research. Psychological Medicine in November 2006 reported that drug studies funded by pharmaceutical companies show positive results for psychiatric drugs 78 percent of the time, while drug studies without pharmaceutical company funding show favorable results only 48 percent of the time. This was discovered after examining 301 articles that were published between 1992 and 2002 in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Archives of General Psychiatry, Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, and Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology.

Also reported by Psychological Medicine was that the percentage of studies sponsored by drug companies increased from 25% in 1992 to 57% in 2002. Currently, it is increasingly rare for a drug study not to be funded by the drug’s manufacturer.

Why are so many doctors unaware of just how poorly antidepressants have actually fared in studies? The New England Journal of Medicine (January 17, 2008) reviewed both published and unpublished antidepressant studies registered with the FDA between 1987 and 2004 on twelve antidepressants, and it reported that most studies with negative results were never published in journals. While 94 percent of antidepressant studies published in journals show antidepressants to be more effective than placebos, only 51 percent of all registered studies were determined by the FDA to show antidepressants superior to placebos.

The damage to the general public caused by drug company corruption of psychiatry goes beyond the cover up of the ineffectiveness and dangers of drugs. Drug company corruption of psychiatry has also resulted in a disregard of non-drug solutions for emotional and behavioral difficulties. In response to his corruption charges, former NPR host Frederick Goodwin told the New York Times that because he consults for so many drug makers at once that he has no particular bias, “These companies compete with each other and cancel each other out.” Using Goodwin’s logic, if a politician is on the take from every oil corporation, then that politician has no conflict of interest with regard to energy policy.

Even before the extensive media coverage of the 2008 Congressional investigations of psychiatry, a 2006 Gallup poll revealed that the American public had relatively low confidence in psychiatrists’ honesty and ethics. When Americans were asked about the “honesty and ethical standards” of several professions, only 38 percent of respondents had a positive opinion of psychiatrists, much lower than the 69 percent positive rating for other medical doctors (nurses topped the list of professionals with an 84 percent positive rating).

When Gallup published the results of it its honesty and ethical standards poll, the American Psychiatric Association concluded that the problem of Americans’ lack of confidence in the honesty and ethics of psychiatrists is not with psychiatrists but with an ignorant American public. Commenting on the Gallup poll, a spokesperson for the APA in the Psychiatric News (an APA publication) concluded that psychiatrists need “to educate the public about who we are and what it is that we do.”

How arrogant does an authority need to become before it loses its authority? How corrupt does an authority need to become before it loses its authority? How many times does an authority get to be wrong before it loses its authority? And how many bad apples does it take for Americans to suspect the entire barrel?

The good news is that while Americans often have no choice but to deal with many arrogant, corrupt, ignorant institutions, most adults are not actually forced to hand over their emotional and behavioral problems to establishment psychiatry.

Bruce E. Levine
is a clinical psychologist and author of Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007).