I have received several criticisms from colleagues about my position on describing depression as a brain disorder that is biologically based. This is a controversy all area and a political one. Many in the mental health profession feel that to medicalize depression is to play into the hands of the pharmaceutical industry. I think there is great merit to my colleagues points and I accept their criticism that my focus on depression may be too narrow. Maybe. So I'll publish excerpts of their letters and then my response at the end.
It seems that every time I read your column lately, you re making the case for depression as a biological illness like diabetes hat requires medication. I certainly agree that medication can be helpful for some people with "deep depression" you referred to recently. However, as you know, many people in our field feel that medication is being vastly over-prescribed. (Dr Joseph Glenmullen at Harvard says in his book that 75% of prescriptions for Prozac are unneccessary.) Young people are being taught that the answer to life's problems is found in pills--long before they have the chance to develop coping skills that would serve them far better and without side effects.
The point you made that distressed me most was that "depression is caused by a chemical imbalance." However, no such imbalance has been found for depression. Some depressives have low levels of serotonin, but others have normal or high levels. The drug companies themselves admit
that their anti-depressants offer results just mariginally better than placebos.
It's possible that you and I will never see this situation quite the same way. I've seen so many patients who come in severely depressed but who decide to use psychotherapy alone to get well.
Here's my point and my plea: Pharmaceutical companies have vast sums with which to deliver their message to the public, and they do so round the clock, reaching many millions daily. The other side of the debate gets zero air time. How can the public be expected to weigh the evidence?
Can I respectfully suggest that you read someone from the other side : eg Dr David Healy ("Let Them Eat Prozac") or Glenmullen ("Prozac Backlash")
Deborah Anna Luepnitz, Ph.D
Dear Dr. Gottlieb,
A couple of months ago, and again recently you indicated that depression is due to a biochemical imbalance for which medication must be taken. While I am not against the use of medication under certain circumstances, I wish to raise a question about the biochemical imbalance idea. It is often invoked these days as an explanation for depression as well as for other emotional problems, as if it were an already proven certainty. Yet we both know that there is another side to the story, an equally legitimate point of view that rarely finds its way into the public purview. The pharmaceutical industry has spent a considerable amount of time, effort, and money promoting its wares, as it should. It must show profits and it must answer to its shareholders. So we would expect that they will present a polished portrayal of their products. However, as clinicians, we must be careful not to solely rely on them for all of our information--much of which they derive from research which they themselves have funded-- regarding the efficacy and safety of those very same products. This is not a novel perspective. It is a point that has been made by Angell, Editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, as well as others
Right now the public, as well as some professionals in the field, believe that there is only one option when faced with emotional problems, that of medication.
Burton N. Seitler, Ph.D.
Both of my colleagues make very important points. And I agree that medication is overprescribed and that, as our culture, we are too ready to look for pills to solve our problems. And, of course, much of this is fed by the pharmaceutical industry. So I agree with all of the exploits.
And I did mention in my last web chat that both medication and psychotherapy individually get comparable results, but both together get even better results.
However, I disagree about depression not being based in genetics and brain chemistry. I am quite comfortable with the research about that. And to view depression as a brain disorder goes a long way towards taking much of the shame and stigma out of the diagnosis. Unfortunately, both still exist as many see depression as a character weakness or a failure, but I find that once I explain to an individual or a family the biology of depression, shame dissipates and people are more likely to seek treatment -- both medication and psychotherapy.
Now that we know more about the brain and genetics, more people are seeing it for what it is -- something that originates in biology and can be made better or worse depending on what happens in one's environment. Just like there is plenty of evidence about the biological basis of depression, we now know through various scans that things like meditation, prayer, psychotherapy also change brain structure and function.
I appreciate your criticism, it helps people learn more .