To the Editor:
The state of medicine described in “A Golden Age of Mental Health,” by Professor Keith Humphreys (Opinions Section, March 7, 2014), is deeply troubling. I do not mean this to suggest we should return to a world of lobotomies and institutions. But the public policy-assisted expansion of the mental health industry cannot be used to show progress in society’s health at large.
The philosopher Ivan Illich played provocateur in 1975 when he asserted that the greatest threat to health is, in fact, modern medicine. Today, in the U.S. alone, hospital-associated infections contribute to almost 100,000 deaths a year. But the relationship between medicine and illness becomes even more worrying when discussing mental health.
The last decade has seen an unprecedented expansion of the mental health-industrial complex, including exponential increases in bipolar disorder diagnoses and the official inclusion of dozens of questionable diagnosable disorders like “internet gaming disorder.” Every Stanford student, it seems, either has an Adderall prescription or knows someone who does.
Thanks to some of the policies described by Dr. Humphreys, I know that a lot more people who need help are getting it. But instead of celebrating the forces that make up the “public policy revolution,” I suggest that government is the least credible candidate to lead the mental health fight. The scourge of corporate lobbyists that pervades Washington is well-documented: In 2008, the top recipients of pharmaceutical industry donations was a veritable who’s who of top Obamacare negotiators.
What used to be called growing pains and mood swings are now symptoms of ADHD and dizzying arrays of prefix-modified menopauses. Increasing numbers of people consume an increasing number of drugs to cure increasingly complicated, unobservable ailments. It’s hard to say that society is the biggest winner. We can say, though, that the business of mental health has never been more profitable.
Is this the “golden age” of mental health? Or have we reached a threshold of mental health medicalization that is doing more harm than good? Most importantly, does society have the power to disrupt industry-led, government-complicit forces of mental health medicalization?
We know what Ivan Illich would say. His Medical Nemesis, some four decades old, is in hindsight clearly avant-garde.
“A placebo—Latin for ‘I will, please’—pleases not only the patient, but the administering physician as well.”
Edward Ngai ’15 was formerly president and editor in chief of The Stanford Daily.
Contact Edward Ngai at [email protected]