That should be obvious by anybody reading this post but it clearly is not. I have already established that there is a disproportionate amount of criticism of psychiatry in the popular media compared with any other medical specialty. The most common assumption of most of those critics is that psychiatrists are easily influenced by pharmaceutical companies or thought leaders who are working for pharmaceutical companies. There are many reasons why that assumption is incorrect but today I want to deal with a more implicit assumption that is that there is a drug that is indicated and effective for every medical condition.
In the field of psychiatry this marketing strategy for pharmaceuticals became prominent with the biological psychiatry movement in the 1980s. Biological psychiatrists studied neuropsychopharmacology and it followed that they wanted to apply their pharmaceuticals to treat human conditions. At the popular level initiatives like National Depression Screening Day were heavily underwritten by pharmaceutical companies and the implicit connection was that you could be screened and be treated with a medication that would take care of your depression.
From the perspective of a pharmaceutical company this is marketing genius. You are essentially packaging a disease cure in a pill and suggesting that anyone with a diagnosis who takes it will be cured. The other aspects of marketing genius include the idea that you can be "screened" or minimally assessed and take the cure. We now have the diagnosis, treatment, and cure neatly packaged in a patent protected pill that the patient must take. The role of the physician is completely minimized because the pharmaceutical company is essentially saying we have all the expertise that you need. The physician's role is further compromised by the pharmaceutical benefit manager saying that they know more about which pill to prescribe for particular condition than the physician does. That is an incredible amount of leverage in the health care system and like most political dimensions in healthcare it is completely inaccurate.
The pharmaceutical company perspective is also entirely alien to the way that psychiatrists are trained about how to evaluate and treat depression. Physicians in general are taught a lot about human interaction as early as the first year in medical school and that training intensifies during psychiatric residency. The competencies required to assess and treat depression are well described in the APA guidelines that are available online. A review of the table of contents of this document illustrates the general competencies required to treat depression. Reading through the text of the psychopharmacology section is a good indication of the complexity of treating depression with medications especially attending to side effects and complications of treatment and decisions on when to start, stop, and modify treatment. Those sections also show that psychopharmacology is not the simple act that is portrayed in the media. It actually takes a lot of technical skill and experience. There really is no simple screening procedure leading to a medication that is uniformly curative and safe for a specific person.
The marketing aspects of these medications often create the illusion that self-diagnosis or diagnosis by nonexperts is sufficient and possible. Some people end up going to the website of a pharmaceutical company and taking a very crude screening evaluation and concluding that they have bipolar disorder. In the past year, I was contacted by an employer who was concerned about the fact that her employee had seen a nonpsychiatrist and within 20 minutes was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated with a mood stabilizer, an antidepressant, and an antipsychotic medication. Her concern was that the employee in question could no longer function at work and there was no follow-up scheduled with the non-psychiatrist who had prescribed medication. Managed care approaches screening patients in primary care settings increase the likelihood that these situations will occur.
The current anti-psychiatry industry prefers to have the public believe that psychiatrists and their professional organization are in active collusion with the pharmaceutical industry to prescribe the most expensive medications. In the case of the approximately 30 antidepressants out there, most are generic and can be easily purchased out-of-pocket. Only the myth that medications treat depression rather than psychiatrists keeps that line of rhetoric going.
George Dawson, MD
American Psychiatric Association. Practice Guideline for the Treatment ofPatients With Major Depressive Disorder, Third Edition. 2010