I recently attended Youth Mental Health First Aid Training at a local public school. It was an eye-opening experience.
Youth Mental Health First Training, sponsored by the National Council for Behavioral Health, is intended to enable teachers, parents and others in contact with young people to identify potential "mental illnesses" in order to facilitate early detection and treatment by our mental health care system. My fellow attendees were surprisingly open about their own experiences with that system. One mentioned that her son became manic after being diagnosed for ADHD. Another said that both she and her roommate became bipolar after being diagnosed for depression. Neither our facilitators nor anyone else present pointed out that mania and bipolar disorder are toxic effects of medications commonly prescribed for ADHD and depression.
Our training manual didn't say anything about this either, although it did claim that depression is caused by a deficiency of serotonin — a fable that by now has become as discredited as the phlogiston theory of chemistry. It also stated that mental health interventions are "evidence-based" and "scientifically tested" — neglecting to mention that much of that evidence is put forth by drug companies who have a fiduciary duty to do everything they can to maximize sales of their products.
So is all this a scheme to push more drugs to more kids? The 2013/2014 annual report for the National Council for Behavioral Health, titled "A Legacy of Excellence and Impact," gives us a hint. It lists the organization's supporters as including the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) along with no fewer than 12 different drug companies. Would these folks be ponying up the cash if they weren't confident this program would increase sales? And do the parents and teachers who attend the council's training program — no doubt with the best intentions in the world — realize that they are essentially sitting through an eight-hour infomercial bought and paid for by the drugmakers?
By the way, those 12 companies (found on page 24) include AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Eli Lilly, Janssen and Novartis. Within the last 10 years, each of these companies (or in the case of Janssen, its parent company Johnson & Johnson) has paid hundreds of millions of dollars to settle claims of illegal marketing, in some cases including illegal marketing of powerful antipsychotic drugs to children. Earlier this year, a jury awarded $70 million to a boy who grew breasts after taking Janssen's blockbuster drug Risperdal. And no doubt Janssen and all these other companies have come out well ahead financially.
Joanna Moncrieff, a psychiatrist of more than 25 years experience and author of "The Bitterest Pills: The Troubling Story of Antipsychotic Drugs," told me "The task of childhood is to learn how to manage unpleasant emotions. We need to help children learn techniques to manage their emotions, not squash them with drugs."
Indeed. Parents, teachers and other caretakers have been helping young people learn to cope with life's vicissitudes since time immemorial. Why do they need help from the pharmaceutical companies to do this? Today, toddlers who throw temper tantrums are diagnosed with "bipolar disorder" and prescribed major tranquilizers, a process psychiatrist David Healy has likened to giving cancer chemotherapy to a child with a cold.
One out of 13 American children between the ages of 6 and 17 has taken a psychotropic medication within the last six months, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Meanwhile, youth suicide rates are at their peak going back at least as far back as 1999, while the number of children receiving disability benefits for mental illness is at an all-time high.
Does anyone think the problem is we aren't drugging enough kids? We live in a society in which children are exploited as consumers — of manufactured entertainment, of nutritionally barren junk food, of psychiatric medications — as ruthlessly as they once were for their labor.
No doubt this essay will elicit the obligatory incantations against "stigmatizing" the mentally ill. But there is a world of difference between stigmatizing the confused and vulnerable, and stigmatizing an industry that preys on the confused and vulnerable.
Patrick D. Hahn is an affiliate professor of biology at Loyola University Maryland and a free-lance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.