We’ve overdosed. Psychiatrists and the pharmaceutical industry are to blame for the current ‘epidemic’ of mental disorders

Wednesday 12 November 2014, 6.30pm |

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2014-11-12, 18:30 2014-11-12, Europe/London Intelligence Squared Event: We've Overdosed There's a growing number who object to the widespread use of the ‘chemical cosh’ to treat people with mental difficulties. But psychiatrists and the pharma companies would argue that depression and ADHD are real conditions for which drugs work. Which side is right? Intelligence Squared info@intelligencesquared.com

Drug pushers. We tend to associate them with the bleak underworld of criminality. But some would argue that there’s another class of drug pushers, just as unscrupulous, who work in the highly respectable fields of psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry. And they deserve the same moral scrutiny that we apply to the drug pedlar on the street corner. Increasingly within the profession medical labels are being attached to everyday conditions previously thought to be beyond the remit of medical help. So sadness is rebranded as depression, shyness as social phobia, childhood naughtiness as hyperactivity or ADHD. And Big Pharma is only too happy to come up with profitable new drugs to treat these ‘disorders’, drugs which the psychiatrists and GPs then willingly prescribe, richly rewarded by the pharma companies for doing so. In the last decade the use of antidepressants in the UK has doubled and in 2012 50 million prescriptions had been written for them. It’s a similar story for hyperactivity: the use of Ritalin has tripled with 800,000 prescriptions written by 2012. Even worse, argue the critics, the scientific and ethical flaws in the research behind some of these drugs have purposefully not been published. Meanwhile the real underlying causes of behavioural problems and human misery are often left untreated. That’s the view of those who object to the widespread use of the ‘chemical cosh’ to treat people with mental difficulties. But many psychiatrists, while acknowledging that overprescribing is a problem, would argue that the blame lies not with themselves. For example, parents and teachers often ramp up the pressure to have a medical label attached to a child’s problematic behaviour because that way there’s less stigma attached and allowances are made. And psychiatrists and the pharma companies also take issue with those who argue that the ‘chemical imbalance’ theory of mental disorder is a myth. ADHD is a real condition, they say, for which drugs work. Research shows that antidepressants really are more effective than just a placebo, especially in cases of severe depression. Scientists are now working on a completely new kind of antidepressant for people who have endured incurable depression and anxiety for decades – with promising results so far. Human suffering will never be eradicated but evidence shows that pharmaceutical drugs have improved the lives of millions around the world. Come and hear the impassioned arguments on either side at the Royal Geographical Society on November 12th.

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Speakers for the motion

Darian LeaderDarian Leader

Psychoanalyst and author. His books include Strictly Bipolar, What is Madness? and The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression.


Will SelfWill Self

Novelist, journalist and essayist. He writes regularly for The Guardian and the New Statesman and his latest novel, Umbrella, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012.


Against the motion

Declan DooganDeclan Doogan

Veteran of the pharmaceutical industry who held a senior role at Pfizer, which developed the popular antidepressant Zoloft. He is currently CEO of Portage Biotech and executive chairman of BioHaven, a technology start-up which is at the forefront of developing a radically new form of antidepressant based on ketamine.


Professor Sir Simon WesselyProfessor Sir Simon Wessely

President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. He is also Chair of Psychological Medicine and Vice Dean of the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London.




Matthew TaylorMatthew Taylor

Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).




Speakers are subject to change.