Psychiatry’s Links to Welfare

No longer is alarmism about modern-day psychiatry the preserve of conspiracy theorists and Scientologists. That a forthcoming appearance at the Wheeler Centre by Jon Ronson, author of The Psychopath Test, has sold out is an indication of increasing interest in mental illnesses and the psychoactive pharmaceuticals prescribed to treat them.

A recent two-part essay in the New York Review of Books by Marcia Angell, ‘The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why?’, raises alarming questions about the state of modern psychiatry and of the role pharmaceutical companies are playing in the development of widely-accepted treatments. Angell writes that a major 2001-2003 survey conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health in the US found that almost half the adult population fit the criteria for having suffered a mental illness at some point of their lives. One in ten 10-year-old boys in the US now take stimulants to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and there are half a million children in the US on antipsychotic drugs.

While psychoactive drugs undoubtedly have a beneficial effect for many sufferers of mental illness, perhaps the saddest aspect of current US psychiatry is, according to Angell, its links to poverty. “As low-income families experience growing economic hardship, many are finding that applying for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments on the basis of mental disability is the only way to survive. It is more generous than welfare, and it virtually ensures that the family will also qualify for Medicaid.” To qualify for SSI, applicants are generally required to be taking psychoactive drugs. The result? A study found that “children from low-income families are four times as likely as privately insured children to receive antipsychotic medicines.”

On Monday, 26 September, the Wheeler Centre will be hosting Sad, the first of three events in the Sad/Angry/Happy series on the emotions. For this event, chair Noni Hazlehurst will be joined by politician Andrew Robb, comedian Ben Pobjie and Dr Nicole Highet of beyondblue.

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