Psychology Melbourne Blog

News and Insights from the Science of the Mind

Taking pills out of the economy

Edited by Jill Wright,

What an interesting week. As the Prime Minister pledged more consultations and "good government", including a fresh look at savings on health spending, on Wednesday evening I attended a lecture at the State Library by visiting Danish medical researcher Professor Peter Gøtzsche, who as founder of the Nordic Cochrane Centre is devoted to establishing the scientific evidence for medical research.

Over several years he has been particularly critical of the claims made by the drug industry for antidepressants, and for the biomedical theory that underlies conventional psychiatric practice.

As he told The Guardian last year, "the way we currently use psychiatric drugs is causing more harm than good".

In a fascinating presentation, he detailed serious discrepancies between the claims made by drug manufacturers for the effectiveness and safety of SSRIs - which too often are favoured as the first clinical response over better treatments for depression - and the chilling consequences.

He presented statistics that indicated a disturbingly high incidence of younger patients killing themselves and others; serious impacts on their mental and physical health and wellbeing including widespread sexual dysfunction; alarming death rates among older patients as a result of falls and long-term struggles by patients to come off their medication, frequently undermined by psychiatrists misinterpreting withdrawal symptoms as a return of symptoms ... requiring more drugs.

At one point, he introduced a member of the audience, Professor John Read, former Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Liverpool's Institute of Psychology, Health and Society.

Professor Read announced that only days previously he had taken up a position at Swinburne University. That is potentially great news for Australian mental health, because one of Professor Read's particular interests is the role of pharmaceutical industry in psychology.

I was fascinated by a brief remark he made that suggested that Australia had an international reputation for the depth of its acceptance of the biomedical model of mental illness promoted by the AMA and psychiatric leaders that Professor Gøtzsche and a substantial and growing number of professionals, including many psychiatrists, regard as a harmful myth.

Indeed, the US National Institute of Mental Health, which funds most of that country's research on mental health, declared that after decades of pursuing the biological hare, psychiatry had failed to identify any unique biological mechanisms associated with specific diagnoses.

As a column in the New York Times by Stanford University professor of anthropology, Tanya Marie Luhrmann, put it: "[Psychiatric] diagnoses were neither particularly useful nor accurate for understanding the brain and would no longer be used to guide research."

Professor Read's remark is backed by the statistics. Australian consumption of antidepressants is among the highest per capita in the world. At 88.9 defined daily doses per 1000 population, we are popping pills at a rate second only to Iceland. 

And 86 per cent of those drugs are being prescribed by GPs. 

If the federal government wants to make significant savings in the health budget, it could start by looking at the multi-billion-dollar subsidies it is providing for these dangerous medications and the financial consequences of their misuse. 

I think the new Health Minister should waste no time inviting Professor Read to have a chat about this issue. That really would be good government.


About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the APS Victorian branch Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.

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