Robert Whitaker’s “Anatomy of an Epidemic” – book review, upcoming event reminder

Robert Whitaker will appear in Portland August 19.

Robert Whitaker will appear in Portland August 19.

By Jenny Westberg, Portland Mental Health Examiner

Award-winning investigative journalist Robert Whitaker first turned his attention to mental health in 1998, co-authoring a Boston Globe series on the abuse of psychiatric patients in research studies. Whitaker’s interest was piqued. Unfortunately for the field of psychiatry, he kept digging.

In 2002, with Mad in America, Whitaker looked behind the system’s façade. And he didn’t stop there.

His new book, Anatomy of an Epidemic, strips away psychiatry’s carefully constructed and brightly painted architecture, then turns a halogen lamp on the pile of dust that remains.

Whitaker did it old-school. He looked at the research. Unlike other writers, however, Whitaker read all the research he could find – not just the studies that supported the prevailing view.

Take everything you know about psychiatry. Turn it upside down. You’ll have a pretty good idea of what Whitaker discovered.

Study after study showed that outcomes for mental illness are worsened, not improved, by long-term, routine use of psychiatric medications. There was no good evidence showing that people with mental illness need drugs for the rest of their lives. There was plenty of evidence of terrible side effects.

Amy Upham: “The gates of hell”

Whitaker’s research was solid, but he went beyond, finding dozens of personal stories. People who took psychiatric drugs told him of serious, long-term health problems and, sometimes, permanent disability.

One of the people he interviewed was Amy Upham, who told Whitaker about an ordeal that started with antidepressants, continued with more and more drugs, and led to serious physical problems, with mental and emotional effects so severe that doctors thought she might have early Alzheimer’s disease. Upham’s story is medically documented, and it is not unique.

In an interview, Upham said her experience with psychiatric drugs and withdrawal was “like being thrust through the gates of hell.”

What should doctors have done instead of giving her psych meds? Upham explains that she was first given antidepressants for fibromyalgia, which stemmed from Lyme Disease. However, the illness was never properly treated. She knows now that she should have had a course of probiotics, including months of acidophilus. And when she developed symptoms of OCD at 21, what she needed was adequate counseling for crisis and trauma. When further troubles hit, she needed good medical care and good counseling. Instead, she got a quick fix, and another, and another, until her life became a nightmare.

The good news? Upham is recovering her health. She’s doing better than she has for years, better than she was when Whitaker interviewed her. Drug-free, she no longer experiences paranoia, hallucinations, rage, movement disorders with unbearable restlessness, and other symptoms. She’s regaining some of the weight she lost. She can eat again. She can concentrate. She still has some anxiety and depression, but she deals with it. She’s getting her life back.

Symptoms vs. Withdrawal

A couple of questions remain. First: for many people, the drugs are helpful. What gives?

Whitaker explained by email, “The drugs generally do knock down a target symptom better than placebo over the short term.” For instance, if a person has been staying up all night, psychiatric medications can provide a good night’s sleep. That alone can relieve a variety of symptoms.

Another question: Once a person is on psychiatric medications, they are often cautioned not to stop taking them – and if they do quit, sure enough, symptoms return. Doesn’t this prove they needed the drugs? Actually, says Whitaker, it may simply prove that the drugs have withdrawal symptoms. Since psychiatric medications affect the brain, it makes sense that withdrawal would affect the brain too, with symptoms that may resemble the original illness.

Whitaker’s research also led to troubling evidence suggesting the entire biological model of psychiatry was concocted to shore up psychiatry’s reputation as a medical specialty. He cites enough evidence, in fact, that a reader might wonder whether any psychiatrists are genuinely concerned with helping people.

Actually, says Whitaker, most psychiatrists honestly believe there is good evidence supporting the use of psychiatric medications, and are genuinely trying to help.

However, they don’t see the whole picture. According to Whitaker, “The practicing psychiatrist doesn’t see what happens to patients who are never exposed to medications, and thus the psychiatrist doesn’t see the natural course of the disorder.” Only science, he says, tells us what happens when people receive no medications. And science says that overall, they do far better than those who take drugs.

Hidden information

The problem, says Whitaker, is that this science is hidden, and “drug-induced chronicity is mostly kept out of sight and out of mind.”

Whitaker’s book, too, has mostly been kept out of sight and out of mind. It seems Whitaker happened upon facts that no one really wants to acknowledge. While his previous books were well-received by the mainstream press, an uncharacteristic silence has surrounded Anatomy of an Epidemic. There have only been a handful of print reviews; almost all reviews so far have been on the Internet.

“This book reveals a history that belies a conventional belief in this country, which is that psychiatric medications have greatly improved the lives of those with psychiatric diagnoses,” says Whitaker.

Anatomy of an Epidemic presents a challenge, but one that is thoroughly researched and evidence-based. It is a challenge that should not be dismissed.

Some people will avoid this book because they are confident they know the facts about mental illness and psychiatric drugs. They know what their doctor told them. They know what they read in medical journals.

Here’s the bottom line. If challenge intrigues you, put this book on your reading list.

If, however, you think Robert Whitaker is uninformed, reckless, or flat out crazy for writing it, don’t bother with the reading list – go directly to the bookstore.

See Robert Whitaker live!
Special Benefit Lecture Sponsored by Portland Hearing Voices
Where: Powell’s City of Books, downtown – 1005 W Burnside Portland, Oregon
When: Thursday, August 19, 7:30 PM
For details, see:

Important Note:
If you are taking psychiatric medications, don’t stop taking them abruptly. Some people do better on medications. If you do choose to reduce or stop your medications, get advice and take it slowly. For further information, download the Harm Reduction Guide to Coming Off Psychiatric Drugs.