Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America (Review)

December 23, 2014

Book cover for "Anatomy of an Epidemic" by Robert Whitaker.Title: Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America

Author: Robert Whitaker

Narrator: Ken Kliban

Publication Year: 2010

Pages: 416 (audio length: 14 hours)

Genre: Non-Fiction, Narrative Non-Fiction

Source: Audiobook version purchased from Audible.com

From the cover:

In this astonishing and startling book, award-winning science and history writer Robert Whitaker investigates a medical mystery: Why has the number of disabled mentally ill in the United States tripled over the past two decades? Every day, 1,100 adults and children are added to the government disability rolls because they have become newly disabled by mental illness, with this epidemic spreading most rapidly among our nation’s children. What is going on?

Anatomy of an Epidemic challenges readers to think through that question themselves. First, Whitaker investigates what is known today about the biological causes of mental disorders. Do psychiatric medications fix “chemical imbalances” in the brain, or do they, in fact, create them? Researchers spent decades studying that question, and by the late 1980s, they had their answer. Readers will be startled — and dismayed — to discover what was reported in the scientific journals.

I have some seriously mixed feelings about this book.

On the one hand, I feel like it was a great resource to learn about mental disorders in America, and how our lives – and our dependence on pharmaceuticals – have exacerbated our mental health over the past few decades. Whitaker did a great job in illustrating the problem and in giving lots of case studies and research to support his ideas.

On the other hand, I found his approach and assumptions problematic. I understand that there is lots of research to support his argument that psychiatric medications create mental illness – or, at least, exacerbate it – but I still find that there is too much evidence of mental illness being helped with medications to completely agree with him. I found myself bristling at various times when listening to the book, wanting to argue with things that he was saying.

As someone who struggles with mental illness myself, it was hard for me to just blindly accept his assertions. I know how I think, feel, and behave when I’m both on and off my medication, and I know that it’s not as simple as saying that medication caused my problems. I feel like maybe there needs to be some middle ground, between what is already accepted and what Whitaker is putting forward in his book.

Having said all of that, Anatomy of an Epidemic was a fascinating and educational read, and if you’re interested in mental illness, you’ll probably enjoy it.

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