Psychiatry Admits Its Been Wrong in Big Ways, But Can It Change? A Chat with Robert Whitaker

Since I interviewed Robert Whitaker for AlterNet in 2010, after the publication of Anatomy of an Epidemic, the psychiatry establishment has pivoted from first ignoring him, to then debating him and attempting to discredit him, to currently agreeing with many of his conclusions. I was curious about his take on the recent U-turns by major figures in the psychiatry establishment with respect to (1) antipsychotic drug treatment, (2) the validity of the “chemical imbalance” theory of mental illness, and (3) the validity of the DSM, psychiatry’s diagnostic bible. And I was curious about Whitaker’s sense of psychiatry’s future direction.

Bruce Levine: In 2013, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Thomas Insel, announced—without mentioning you— that he agreed with your conclusion that psychiatry’s standard treatment for people diagnosed with schizophrenia and other psychoses needs to change so as to better reflect the diversity in this population. Citing long-term treatment studies that you had previously documented, Insel came to the same conclusion that you had: in the long-term, not all but many individuals who have been diagnosed with psychosis actually do better without antipsychotic medication. Was it gratifying for you to see the U.S. government’s highest ranking mental health official agreeing with you?

Robert Whitaker: Shortly before Thomas Insel wrote that blog, I had posted my own on, related to a recent study by Lex Wunderink from the Netherlands. Wunderink had followed patients diagnosed with a psychotic disorder for seven years, and he reported that those randomized, at an early date, to a treatment protocol that involved tapering down to a very low dose or withdrawing from the medication altogether had much higher recovery rates than those maintained on a regular dose of an antipsychotic.

I wrote that in the wake of Wunderink’s randomized study, if psychiatry wanted to maintain its claim that its treatments were evidence-based, and thus maintain any sort of moral authority over this medical domain, then it needed to amend its treatment protocols for antipsychotics. I don’t know if Dr. Insel read my blog, but his post did nevertheless serve as a reply, and as you write, he did basically come to the same conclusion that I had been writing about for some time.

I suppose I took some measure of personal gratification from his blog, for it did provide a sense of a public acknowledgment that I had indeed been “right.” But more important, I felt a new sense of optimism, hopeful that maybe psychiatry would now really address this issue, which is so important to the lives of so many people. A short while ago, the New York Times published a feature story on Dr. Insel, noting that he had recently raised a question about the long-term use of antipsychotics, which had caused a stir in psychiatry because it contradicted conventional wisdom. That is a sign that perhaps a new discussion is really opening up.

Bruce Levine: In Anatomy of an Epidemic, you also discussed the pseudoscience behind the “chemical imbalance” theories of mental illness—theories that made it easy to sell psychiatric drugs. In the last few years, I’ve noticed establishment psychiatry figures doing some major backpedaling on these chemical imbalance theories. For example, Ronald Pies, editor-in-chief emeritus of the Psychiatric Times stated in 2011, “In truth, the ‘chemical imbalance’ notion was always a kind of urban legend—never a theory seriously propounded by well-informed psychiatrists.” What’s your take on this?

Robert Whitaker: This is quite interesting, and revealing I would say. In a sense, Ronald Pies is right. Those psychiatrists who were “well informed” about investigations into the chemical imbalance theory of mental disorders knew it hadn’t really panned out, with such findings dating back to the late 1970s and early 1980s. But why then did we as a society come to believe that mental disorders were due to chemical imbalances, which were then fixed by the drugs?

Dr. Pies puts the blame on the drug companies, but if you track the rise of this belief, it is easy to see that the American Psychiatric Association promoted it in some of their promotional materials to the public, and that “well-informed” psychiatrists often spoke of this metaphor in their interviews with the media. So what you find in this statement by Dr. Pies is a remarkable confession: psychiatry, all along, knew that the evidence wasn’t really there to support the chemical imbalance notion, that it was a hypothesis that hadn’t panned out, and yet psychiatry failed to inform the public of that crucial fact.

By doing so, psychiatry allowed a “little white lie” to take hold in the public mind, which helped sell drugs and of course made it seem that psychiatry had magic bullets for psychiatric disorders. That is an astonishing betrayal of the trust that the public puts in a medical discipline; we don’t expect to be misled in such a basic way.

But why now? Why are we hearing these admissions from Dr. Pies and others now? I am not sure, but I think there are two reasons.

One, the low-serotonin theory of depression has been so completely discredited by leading researchers that maintaining the story with the public has just become untenable. It is too easy for critics and the public to point to the scientific findings that contradict it.

Second, a number of pharmaceutical companies have shut down their research into psychiatric drugs [see Science, 2010], and they are doing so because, as they note, there is a lack of science providing good molecular targets for drug development. Even the drug companies are moving away from the chemical-imbalance story, and thus, what we are seeing now is the public collapse of a fabrication, which can no longer be maintained. In the statement by Dr. Pies, you see an effort by psychiatry to distance itself from that fabrication, putting the blame instead on the drug companies.

Bruce Levine: And recently, establishment psychiatrists have even been challenging the validity of psychiatry’s diagnostic bible, the DSM. Last year, NIMH director Insel, citing the DSM’s lack of scientific validity, stated that the “NIMH will be re-orienting its research away from DSM categories.” And psychiatrist Allen Frances, the former chair of the DSM-4 task force, has been talking about how the DSM is a money machine for drug companies (“Last Plea To DSM-5: Save Grief From the Drug Companies”), and Frances thoroughly trashed the DSM-5 in his 2013 book Saving Normal.

Robert Whitaker: I think this challenging of the validity of DSM is, in many ways, potentially much more of a paradigm-changer than are the scientific reports that detail how the medications may be causing long-term harm. Our current drug-based paradigm of care, which presents drugs as treatments for the symptoms of a “disease,” stems from DSM III. The APA [American Psychiatric Association] and its leaders boasted that when DSM III was published in 1980, that the field had now adopted a “medical model,” and thus its manual was now “scientific” in kind.

In fact, the APA had adopted a “disease model,” and if you carefully read the DSM III manual, you saw that the authors acknowledged that very few of the diagnoses had been “validated.” The APA’s hope and expectation was that future research would validate the disorders, but that hasn’t happened. Researchers haven’t identified a characteristic pathology for the major mental disorders; no specific genes for the disorders have been found; and there isn’t evidence that neatly separates one disorder from the next. The “disease model,” as a basis for making psychiatric diagnoses, has failed.

We are now witnessing, in Insel’s statements and those by Allen Frances, an acknowledgment of this failure. And here is why this is potentially such a paradigm-changer: The foundation of any medical specialty begins with its diagnostic manual, which should be both reliable and valid. If the disorders listed in a manual haven’t been validated, then you can’t conclude they are “real,” in the sense of the disorders being unique illnesses, and the diagnoses being useful for prescribing an appropriate treatment.

Thus, when Insel states that the disorders haven’t been validated, he is stating that the entire edifice that modern psychiatry is built upon is flawed, and unsupported by science. This is like the King of Psychiatry saying that the discipline has no clothes. If the public loses faith in the DSM, and comes to see it as unscientific, then psychiatry has a real credibility problem on its hands, and that could prove to be fertile ground for real change.

Bruce Levine: So do you feel you have accomplished your mission? And can dissident mental health professionals—who have for years been talking about invalid diagnoses, pseudoscientific theories of mental illness, and drug treatments that cause moderate and acute problems to become severe and chronic ones—now have reasons to be optimistic about their profession? Or are you pessimistic that the recent admissions of establishment psychiatry will result in substantive changes in treatment?

Robert Whitaker: This is a good question, and I vacillate in my personal response between guarded optimism and complete pessimism. From an intellectual, scientific standpoint, I think psychiatry is facing a deep crisis. There is an understanding, within psychiatric research circles, that the DSM diagnoses haven’t, in fact, been validated. And, at the very least, there is a recognition that psychiatry’s drug treatments are inadequate. In 2009, Insel wrote an article stating: “For too many people, antipsychotics and antidepressants are not effective, and even when they are helpful, they reduce symptoms without eliciting recovery.” And I do think that my book Anatomy of an Epidemic has contributed to an awareness of the limitations of the drugs, and at least a discussion, in some psychiatric circles, that the drugs may be worsening long-term outcomes.

But in terms of accomplishing my mission, well, I guess my “mission” would be to see that our society would actually build a system of care that was truly “science” based, particularly in its use of psychiatric drugs. I think this is such an important story for our society, and one of extraordinary moral importance when it comes to medicating children and adolescents, none of whom could be said to have really “consented” to such treatment. I turned into a webzine with the hope that by providing a forum for a community of writers interested in “rethinking psychiatry,” and combining their voices with reports of research that provide a foundation for such rethinking, it could become a real force for change. We’ll see if that happens, but our readership is steadily increasing.

I should note, as you say, that dissident mental health professionals have been plugging away at promoting such change for a long time. I hope that is providing that community a forum for voicing their criticisms, and making them known to a larger audience.

And now for why I can be so pessimistic. Even as the intellectual foundation for our drug-based paradigm of care is collapsing, starting with the diagnostics, our society’s use of these medications is increasing; the percentage of children and youth being medicated is increasing; and states are expanding their authority to forcibly treat people in outpatient settings with antipsychotics drugs. Disability numbers due to mental illness go up and up, and we don’t see that as reason to change either. History does show that paradigms of psychiatric care can change, but, in a big-picture sense, I don’t know how much is really changing here in the United States.

I think dissident mental health professionals also have to confront this question. Can they be hopeful that their professions will change their ways, and their teachings? I think so, but there is so much that needs to be done.

Bruce Levine: Is it really possible for psychiatry to reform in any meaningful way given their complete embrace of the “medical model of mental illness,” their idea that emotional and behavioral problems are caused by a bio-chemical defect of some type? Can they really reform when their profession as a financial enterprise rests on drug prescribing, electroshock, and other bio-chemical-electrical treatments? Can psychiatry do anything but pay lip service to a more holistic/integrative view that includes psychological, spiritual, social, cultural, and political realities?

Robert Whitaker: I think we have to appreciate this fact: any medical specialty has guild interests, meaning that it needs to protect the market value of its treatments. If it is going to abandon one form of treatment, it needs to be able to replace it with another. It can’t change if there is no replacement in the offing.

When the APA published DSM III, it basically ceded talk therapy to psychologists, counselors, social workers, and so forth. Psychiatry’s three domains, in the marketplace, were diagnostics, research, and the prescribing of drugs. Now, thirty-four years later, we see that its diagnostics are being dismissed as invalid; its research has failed to identify the biology of mental disorders to validate its diagnostics; and its drug treatments are increasingly being seen as not very effective or even harmful. That is the story of a profession that has reason to feel insecure about its place in the marketplace.

Yet, as you suggest, this is why it is going to be so hard for psychiatry to reform. Diagnosis and the prescribing of drugs constitute the main function of psychiatrists today in our society. From a guild perspective, the profession needs to maintain the public’s belief in the value of that function. So I don’t believe it will be possible for psychiatry to change unless it identifies a new function that would be marketable, so to speak. Psychiatry needs to identify a change that would be consistent with its interests as a guild.

The one faint possibility I see—and this may seem counterintuitive—is for psychiatry to become the profession that provides a critical view of psychiatric drugs. Family doctors do most of the prescribing of psychiatric drugs today, without any real sense of their risks and benefits, and so psychiatrists could stake out a role as being the experts who know how to use the drugs in a very selective, cautious manner, and the experts who know how to incorporate such drug treatment into a holistic, integrated form of care. If the public sees the drugs as quite problematic, as medications that can serve a purpose but only if prescribed in a very nuanced way, then it will want to turn to physicians who understand well the problems with the drugs and their limitations.

That is what I think must happen for psychiatry to change. Psychiatry must see a financial benefit from a proposed change, one consistent with guild interests.

4 Responses

  1. Harriet Ackerman, MD
    Harriet Ackerman, MD March 15, 2014 at 1:14 pm |

    Thank you for this wonderfully interesting and intelligent interview.
    These questions occupy me constantly; as a child and adolescent psychiatrist I face each day with fear and trembling, hoping to find a way to do more good than harm–finally, trying to find a way to do good. And it is no easy task.
    It was obvious to me (as it would be to any of my colleagues who would tolerate the anxiety of thinking about this issue), that it is a dangerous thing to put chemicals (“medicines”) into children’s brains with absolutely no objective evidence that it is safe to do so (and there is none.) The issue of efficacy is something altogether different…
    And so for many years I have proceeded with enormous caution, utilizing every conceivable therapeutic intervention I could–especially family therapies–and when necessary very very low-dose, very very short-term use of “psychotropics” when it seemed that the risk/benefit might be on the side of utilizing something to diminish impulsivity in a hurry.
    But each day I face the same set of contradictions and risks: do I not medicate because there is no evidence that it is a good idea, or do I medicate, risking the possibility of doing harm?
    Everything about the “system” pushes psychiatrists in the direction of simplistic and self-protective action, in particular the fact that that there is no option of a therapeutic psychiatric hospitalization in this country for critical and complex patients to receive treatment. It does not exist except for the immensely wealthy, and even they , because of the genuine degradation of thinking in the field, and the lack of research, do not get much for the $40-$50/month they spend for private hospitalizations and schooling.
    And so there is the immense pressure, if one actually is willing to treat a young person in serious distress whose parents do not have those kinds of means (and generally therefore do not have any kind of insurance at all for psychiatric care), to put them on “something” to keep them from jumping out a window, or a car, or hanging themselves in their homes.
    Of course there are the directives in black boxes given to us courtesy of the FDA that using antidepressants in children and young adult CAN CAUSE suicidality. There is also the opposite demand, courtesy of the psychiatric establishment et al, that anything resembling a diagnosis of depression must treated with antidepressants.
    And this was my original point, in writing this post: Despite my anxiety, and worry, and caution, every once in a while I have faced the possibility that I may be doing great harm without knowing it. Perhaps these medicines are the psychiatric equivalent of thalidomide, of the mind. Maybe there is no dose small enough to be safe. We really do not know, and we really have no one overseeing and looking at the tools that we use.
    So I would like to suggest that one of the reasons, besides base selfishness and self-interest, that psychiatrists are having such a hard time looking at what they do for what it is–unscientific, simplistic, naive and irresponsible–is because of the possibility that their actions are far from benevolent, but actually destructive. That asking a psychiatrist to look at these issues is to ask them to consider the possibility that one’s career has been damaging to others, rather than healing?
    How to face such a thing?
    Much as I am dismayed by my colleagues, I do believe that among their deep impulses is the wish to comfort and heal, and that facing the real possibility that one has done the opposite may well fuel the continued resistance to face facts.

  2. Matt Colborn
    Matt Colborn April 17, 2014 at 1:46 am |

    Glad to see the establishment finally admit the mythical nature of the chemical imbalance theory, and question the DSM.

    However, I am concerned that the next generation of theories and treatments will be just as reductive and unsatisfactory. A recent New Scientist issue on depression exemplified this, with researchers looking for a ‘broken brain’ version 2.0, and by advocating brain implants and new drugs for treatments. The social and personal dimensions of depression were barely mentioned; it was all about neurobiology.

    And also, when researchers question the DSM, in the next breath they often claim that the’ real task’ is to find the neurological origins of depressed states, schizophrenia, etc. In other words, although specific theories have been challenged, the basic reductive mindset has not.

    So in my view, the task for the next generation of dissidents on this issue is to question this unflagging reductionism, which generally ignores social, personal and, yes, spiritual dimensions of these kinds of human suffering. this is not to say that neuroscience does not have a place, but that it *cannot* be allowed to dominate all discussion of issues like depression.

  3. Bill
    Bill February 14, 2016 at 2:20 pm |

    To: “Harriet Ackerman, M.D.”, et al:
    Nice try, Harriet. As one of your “chosen professions'” VICTIMS, why should I let you off the hook so easily? What you’re struggling with, Harriet, is something I leaned all about, from the 12 Steps of A.A., and its’ “Big Book.” What you’ve got, Harriet, is a near-terminal case of DENIAL. Denial of REALITY. Even as the victims
    of the pseudo-science DRUG RACKET known as “psychiatry” sit right in front of you – you can’t see what you and your cohort actually do. You do more harm than good.
    You, Harriet, have done FAR MORE harm, than good….
    Go ahead, prove me wrong, if you can…. Go back to the beginning of your pathetic clinical career….find where all your VICTIMS are…. If what you quack shrinks did, was NOT more harm than good, then the outcomes should be obvious to see…. WHERE ARE YOUR “success stories”, Harriet….????….
    Where are the “success stories” of psychiatry, Harriet?
    Where are your VICTIMS, now?
    (c)2016, Tom Clancy, Jr., *NON-fiction

  4. Emma Bijou
    Emma Bijou May 15, 2016 at 11:02 am |

    Hi Bill.

    You wanted to see where Dr. Ackerman’s success stories are, so I thought I’d introduce myself. My name is Emma. I was a patient of Harriet’s for a couple years as an adolescent, and she was the only mental health professional who I felt made a positive difference in my life- because she took the time to see me as an individual and cared deeply about my progress and setbacks.

    You’re painting with a broad brush, trying to belittle this woman for her career when she’s one of the good ones. She’s not a whore for “Big Pharma”, she’s an honest, kind, and intuitive woman doing her best to help families who don’t know where to turn with their kids. I never felt victimized by her, despite my ongoing criticisms of how mental health in general is dealt with in this country and world. I went from being a self-harming, suicidal, and majorly depressed teenager to a college graduate with a healthy outlook on life and several positive relationships. I give myself a lot of credit for how my life turned around, yet I know without a doubt that Dr. Ackerman sped up the process of healing and I will be grateful for that as long as I live.

    You can choose to lash out at everyone who’s ever worked in psychiatry, but it speaks to nothing except your own bitterness.

    Good luck to you,

    A success story

Comments are closed.