A Looming Anti-Depressants Crisis

The widespread prescription of drugs for troubled minds has always ended badly, right back to the days of opiates and cocaine, up through bromides, barbiturates, and tranquilizers: all proved to be highly addictive drugs, but only after years of denial did doctors admit that this was so. Now anti-depressants--global brands with household names--are the problem. The past decade has seen a three-fold increase in prescriptions. In England, prescriptions of anti-depressants now match Valium at its peak in 1979.

It is now clear that today's anti-depressants are not the wonder drugs they were touted as being. The sometimes intolerable withdrawal symptoms that can make it difficult and hazardous to stop taking anti-depressants also expose many users to severe and depressing side effects: substantial weight gain, loss of libido, and mood changes, to name just the most common complaints. Suspicions about such problems--especially about drug-induced suicidal behavior and sensitization to depression--have been rumbling for years, but searching scientific investigations have only just begun.

An important inquiry set up by the United Kingdom's drug regulators in mid-2003 will soon report its findings. They will no doubt be presented mainly as recommendations for small-print changes in the warnings on drug labels and in the instructions for the drug's use. This may help, it but won't address the real issue: how could regulators have allowed this problem to recur after so much bitter experience, and why should they now be allowed to investigate themselves?

On the Richter scale of drug disasters, the looming anti-depressant crisis appears to range between 7 and 11, where thalidomide rates a 10. Time will tell, but the key point is this: the thalidomide disaster of the 1950's and 1960's happened because there was no independent control of drug safety, whereas the anti-depressant crisis has grown under the aegis of an elaborate, expensive, and global regulatory system.