Dr James Davies writes:
On Wednesday 11th May, CEP brought into the heart of Westminster some of the leading figures in critical psychiatry to discuss the link between rising mental health disability claims and rising psychiatric prescriptions. Hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Prescribed Drug Dependence, for which CEP provides the secretariat, the event opened with an introduction by Paul Flynn MP, who strongly advocated the need for parliamentarians to address the over-prescribing of psycho-pharmaceuticals and their associated effects. He noted that the machinations of the pharmaceutical industry had significantly driven current over-prescribing, and noted the lack of will within the psychiatric profession to truly address let alone reverse over-prescribing and its associated harms.
Presentations followed from Paul, a service user whose life had been upturned by psychiatric medications. Losing the ability to work and to properly engage with his family following a long period of being moved from drug to drug, Paul’s recovery only began once the drugs were stopped. Robert Whitaker, the Pulitzer-nominated science writer, then provided evidence that the effects of long-term drug use, especially antidepressants, are driving disability rates – rendering people less able to recover and return to work. Prof Allan Young, chair of psychopharmacology at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, responded by suggesting this may only be a US problem and that here in the UK things were different. This was rebuffed by Prof Sami Timimi, the next speaker, who argued this was an international problem, respecting no boundaries; his argument was strengthened by data showing that the correlation between rising disability and prescribing rates can be observed in diverse countries – Australia, Iceland, the New Zealand, Sweden and the UK – not just the US.
Then followed Dr Joanna Moncrieff, who discussed the myth of the chemical imbalance, and how it took such a hold on society. She also added that significant drivers of disability are the psychological effects of taking medication long-term – taking drugs day after day make it increasingly difficult to think of oneself as anything other than a chronically ill patient. Dr Andrew King of the Royal College of GPs proceeded to acknowledge there was a problem with over-prescribing, but said that GPs did their best to follow guidelines. Finally, Baroness Philippa Stroud, Director of the influential think tank, The Centre for Social Justice, discussed how many of the problems being medicalised were actually problems of social depravation and exclusion for which social interventions should be preferred.
The main takeaway from the meeting was that the evidence offered by Whitaker and other critical members of CEP was not satisfactorily countered, leaving participants and audience members questioning as to where we must go from here. Prof Peter Kinderman, president of the British Psychological Society, who chaired the event, called for future action both in terms of undertaking more research and addressing current prescribing practices.
In all, the significance of this event cannot be overlooked. To see leading critical thinkers in the heart of Westminster is surely symbolic of how far the critical community has come in recent years. To see the room full of influential persons – from the Shadow Minister for Mental Health, Luciana Berger MP, to the previous president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Baroness Sheila Hollins – is also cause for optimism. But what matters now is the translation of compelling evidence and widespread concern into tangible change, and we realise that it will take far more than optimism to achieve that.