How Pharma Uses the Charge of ‘Stigma’ to Sell Psychiatric Drugs
CAPITALISM, 1 Jan 2018
28 Dec 2017 – Do you overeat? Did your boyfriend just break up with you? Does no one return your emails? Do you fall asleep at night and wake up in the morning? If so, you may be suffering from mental illness! Mental illness is a highly stigmatized, life-long condition, says Pharma, that millions do not even realize they have and only a pharmaceutical drug can fix. Luckily there are advocacy groups like Glenn Close’s Bring Change to Mind and the Pharma-funded front groups, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to help you.
The elevation of everyday symptoms to “mental illness” and accusation that sufferers are victims who experience “stigma” is the best thing that ever happened to Pharma. The charges have enabled it to aggregate and co-opt patients into lobbying groups that appear “grassroots” for its high-priced psychiatric drugs. While these groups say they fight the “stigma” of mental illness, they actually spend their time fighting lawmakers and insurers, at the behest of Pharma, for payment of high-priced drugs. “When insurers balk at reimbursing patients for new prescription medications,” says the Los Angeles Times, these groups “typically swing into action, rallying sufferers to appear before public and consumer panels [and] contact lawmakers.”
The patient front groups include the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, which gets half its funding from Pharma, according to the Los Angeles Times, and NAMI, which received $23 million in just two years from Pharma, according to the Wall Street Journal. In the 1990s, Eli Lilly was NAMI’s biggest donor, reported Mother Jones. A woman I interviewed who wants to remain anonymous for medical privacy says she was told by the Chicago NAMI they could not help her with a borderline condition because there was no “drug” for it. So much for helping patients.
In 2014, NAMI was successful in defeating a White House proposal to limit Medicare coverage of Wellbutrin, Paxil, Prozac, Abilify, Seroquel and other expensive drug classes. “The proposal undermines a key protection for some of the sickest, most vulnerable Medicare beneficiaries,” said Andrew Sperling, a tear-jerking NAMI lobbyist using the image of elderly victims to give Pharma billions of our taxpayer dollars.
Another group yelling “stigma” to sell psychiatric drugs is Active Minds, which says it is “the leading nonprofit organization that empowers students to speak openly about mental health in order to educate others and encourage help-seeking . . . Through campus-wide events and national programs, Active Minds aims to remove the stigma that surrounds mental health issues, and create a comfortable environment for an open conversation about mental health issues on campuses nationwide.”
Active Minds calls itself a student group but when I went to the room in the student building at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where the organization was supposed to be headquartered, they were not there—nor had a desk clerk in the student union and no one ever heard of them. Unlike student groups against climate change or for LGBT rights, Active Minds’ fancy T-shirts and cagey PR apparatus hardly look “grassroots.” In fact, the group gets financial support from Eli Lilly, one of the top makers of psychiatric drugs.
After the apparent suicides of two Northwestern University students in 2012, Active Minds and NAMI descended upon the campus decrying stigma and “barriers” to treatments––postulating that the students needed psychiatric drugs and did not get them. But press stories never reported whether the students who killed themselves needed the drugs (allegedly) or were on the drugs and suffering from their well documented suicidal side effects, especially in young people. Suicidal side effects also emerge when patients discontinue psychiatric drugs. The deaths looked like shameless sales opportunities by Active Minds and NAMI.
A more recent group yelling “stigma” and terming eating disorders and everyday anxiety “mental illness” is Glenn Close’s Bring Change to Mind. It has plastered Chicago subways with posters which it calls its “PSA” campaign. If its high budget, slick commercials selling the idea that everyone, everywhere is “mentally ill” and a candidate for Pharma drugs are public service announcements, why deny Exxon and Monsanto PSAs?
Despite the efforts of NAMI, AFSP, Active Minds and Glenn Close’s group, all of which have brought the use of antidepressants to an all time high, the suicide rate in the United States is rising not falling. Suicide has risen to 38,000 a year, says USA Today, after falling in the 1990s––despite almost a quarter of the population in some age groups taking antidepressants. Use of some psychiatric drugs has grown by 700 percent in the military. Shouldn’t suicides be going down with so many people on psychiatric drugs?
The truth is the expensive, Wall Street-pleasing drugs which many people stay on for decades, or life, are often ineffectual and sometimes cause the very problems they are supposed to alleviate like suicide. Despite high budget campaigns to convince people they are mentally ill and need psychiatric drugs, the real “stigma” is increasingly on people who won’t accept the Pharma diagnoses or drugs.
Martha Rosenberg is a freelance journalist and the author of the highly acclaimed, Born with a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp the Public Health, published by Prometheus Books.
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