As we’ve noted here and here, The New York Review of Books just ran a two-part essay by Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, on the ills of modern American psychiatry, with its heavy reliance on sometimes dubious drugs.
Now comes a response, a piece by Dr. Peter Kramer, of “Listening to Prozac” fame, that dominated the front of the SundayReview section in The New York Times. Peter opens with the recent bad press that antidepressants have been getting, including in Marcia’s writing, then asks:
Could this be true? Could drugs that are ingested by one in 10 Americans each year, drugs that have changed the way that mental illness is treated, really be a hoax, a mistake or a concept gone wrong?
This supposition is worrisome. Antidepressants work — ordinarily well, on a par with other medications doctors prescribe. Yes, certain researchers have questioned their efficacy in particular areas — sometimes, I believe, on the basis of shaky data. And yet, the notion that they aren’t effective in general is influencing treatment.
Peter walks the reader through a broad swath of recent research on antidepressants, and writes:
Better-designed research may tell us whether there is a point on the continuum of mood disorder where antidepressants cease to work. If I had to put down my marker now — and effectively, as a practitioner, I do — I’d bet that “stuckness” applies all along the line, that when mildly depressed patients respond to medication, more often than not we’re seeing true drug effects. Still, my approach with mild depression is to begin treatments with psychotherapy. I aim to use drugs sparingly. They have side effects, some of them serious. Antidepressants help with strokes, but surveys also show them to predispose to stroke. But if psychotherapy leads to only slow progress, I will recommend adding medicines. With a higher frequency and stronger potency than what we see in the literature, they seem to help.
My own beliefs aside, it is dangerous for the press to hammer away at the theme that antidepressants are placebos. They’re not. To give the impression that they are is to cause needless suffering.