Anatomy of an Epidemic

Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America
Narrated by: Ken Kliban
Length: 13 hrs and 57 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (467 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

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 nations children. What is going on?

Anatomy of an Epidemic challenges listeners 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. Listeners will be startled - and dismayed - to discover what was reported in the scientific journals.

Then comes the scientific query at the heart of this book: During the past 50 years, when investigators looked at how psychiatric drugs affected long-term outcomes, what did they find? Did they discover that the drugs help people stay well? Function better? Enjoy good physical health? Or did they find that these medications, for some paradoxical reason, increase the likelihood that people will become chronically ill, less able to function well, more prone to physical illness?

This is the first book to look at the merits of psychiatric medications through the prism of long-term results. By the end of this review of the outcomes literature, listeners are certain to have a haunting question of their own: Why have the results from these long-term studies - all of which point to the same startling conclusion - been kept from the public?

©2010 Robert Whitaker (P)2010 Audible, Inc.

Critic Reviews

"The timing of Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic, a comprehensive and highly readable history of psychiatry in the United States, couldn’t be better." (Salon.com)
"Anatomy of an Epidemic offers some answers, charting controversial ground with mystery-novel pacing." (TIME.com)
"Whitaker tenderly interviews children and adults who bear witness to the ravages of mental illness, and testify to their newly found 'aliveness' when freed from the prison of mind-numbing drugs." (Daniel Dorman, M.D., Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, UCLA School of Medicine)

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    5 out of 5 stars

Good Science, Great Journalism

This is an outstanding work of science journalism and it is likely to surprise the vast majority of its readers. Plus, Ken Kliban is a great narrator. As a both a scientist and a mental health clinician, I support the methods and the conclusions of this book strongly. The irony, though, is that I'm probably not alone. Many, if not most, scientists at the top of NIMH and major universities wouldn't disagree with two of the most important ideas; first, that the "chemical imbalance" hypothesis is basically nonsense, and second, that the outcomes literature for psych drugs are poor. I saw a talk given by Thomas Insel, Director of NIMH, in April (2010, that is) and he said two things that are consistent with Whitaker's conclusions. First a direct quote: "Current treatments help too few people get better and very few get well." Second, he advocated for research focused on the "connectome," that is, a developing understanding of how a typically functioning brain's circuits are interconnected and how disruptions in those connections "cause" mental illness. I think understanding the connectome is important but unlikely to reveal anything about "mental illness" for various empirical reasons I won't go into here.

Of course, what most clinical psychiatrists won't agree with is that the drugs are part of the problem. But I suspect the current generation of psych drugs are going to go the way of tobacco (which used to be promoted for its health benefits). Eventually there's just going to be too much evidence against them. Hopefully Whitaker's work will help accelerate that.

I'm going to recommend this book to everyone I possibly can. I'm also going to teach it to psychiatry residents. Well, to be honest, I'll probably teach the primary sources rather than the book itself because, if Whitaker is right, teaching the book could be bad for my career...

33 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars

Responsible clinicians who prescribe psychotropics are scientifically bound to read this book carefully.


As a physician I have always felt that the minimal use of medication for mentally ill patients was scientifically possible. Now having read this book I am extremely careful that their usage is consensually started and responsibly curtailed as for effective nonpharmacologic methods are brought to bear in each unique patient's case.b

3 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
  • MM
  • 08-07-10

Interesting But Repetitive

The information was fascinating. I'll be checking some of the research just to confirm the author's conclusions. There was a mind-numbing amount of repetition.

12 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars

The author does not use a fair scientific approach

I tend to agree that anti-depressants and anti-psychotics are overly prescribes, particularly since the effects are not well understood. I also agree that drugs are used when cognitive behavioral techniques would be successful (but not make much money for drug companies). I further agree that drug companies have not uncommonly created unfair pro-drug testing regimes. BUT the author makes conclusions that don???t seem to be supported by any data and weaves a deeper conspiracy than the evidence seems to support. Repeating the same evidence is not more evidence. Also the author makes the key mistake seen in such books; Assume the hypothesis then search for data that supports the hypothesis. This is just not how real science is done. So if you read this, take it with a big grain of salt.

43 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

I had no idea

This audio book is loaded with facts, data and information about the current epidemic of mental illness. 3.5 million children on Ritalin; 250 people a day going on Social Security Disability for various mental health issues. The solution has been to use truckloads of pharmaceuticals to control behavior or provide relief. The author presents a very convincing case that our systematic overdosing on these drugs is exacerbating a problem, indeed turning young children who act out in school into drugged young adults who, in some cases, have a life long dependency problem.

Until 1960 most of the modern psychological diseases that are prevalent in the US did not exist. Once big pharma ( the people who fill the evening news with chemical solutions for what ever ails you) cranked up its marketing machine it became essential for many of us to find the "right" pill.

This is an important book for anyone who has children or friend/relatives who may be taking or considering modern psychotropic drugs. This book makes a compelling case that the cure may be worse than the disease.

9 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars

Compelling book, boring narration...

I managed to make it through the entire book, but it's not easy to stay alert listening to the driest narration possible. I think I'm going to stick with fluffier nonfiction books for now on. Plus, I now know to truly listen to the audiobook sample and ask myself, "Could I listen to this narrator for 14 hours?" In the case of this book, I did, but it took the perseverance of a saint. I'd recommend you read this book and listen to something else.

8 people found this helpful

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    1 out of 5 stars

Right Questions Wrong Answer

Sloppy research, loose association and dramatic claims make for a fun read. Mr. Whitaker does highlight some truly terrifying cases were calloused and careless clinicians create significant pain.

Robert Whitaker's weak grasp of psychopathology, diagnosis and psycho-pharmacology are startling and he creates quite a mess. He borrows logic from Jenny McCarthy... More vaccines/more people diagnosed with autism thus vaccines must cause autism. Robert...more people taking psychotropics/more people on disability for depression, psychotropics cause disability.

A more compelling explanation was given by Benjamin Rush the "Father" of American psychiatry who long before the invention of modern psycho-pharmacology, noted that the wealthy who suffer psychiatric disease never recover. The poor frequently had an excellent prognosis. The difference between these two groups? The rich could pay others to do their work for them, the poor were forced to work to obtain food and shelter. Never before could society provided so much assistance to people who were struggling with depression. Mr. Whitaker is at least asking the right question. Are our efforts causing more harm than good?

1 person found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

You will never think the same

Amazing book and I think essential for every person to read. We all know someone who has taken medication of been instructed to take medication for depression, anxiety, bipolar, and ADHD. Reading this books makes you much more informed to make the decision about medications. At the very least, every parent should read this book before they allow their child to take any kind of medication.

11 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    1 out of 5 stars

A good 2 hour book. 14 hours is too much.

Excellent study and case for the problems with the drugs used to treat mental illness. However, the book is too long. After listening to a few cases for the first couple hours, it was good. Repitition of more cases with similar statistics and results in the next few hours started getting boring. I held on for 10 hours hoping that something new would arise in the book, but it was the same thing over and over, I finally quit the book.

6 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars

A loud and resounding wake-up call

Would you listen to Anatomy of an Epidemic again? Why?

“Anatomy of an Epidemic” will appeal to mental health professionals, psychiatrist, medical doctors, and individuals impacted by psychotropic medications. The book posits one simple question: “why have the rates of mental illness skyrocketed in the last 20 years despite the reported advancements in psychotropic medications?” The author, Robert Whitaker, attempts to answer this question armed with data, peer-reviewed research, and a no holds barred investigatory diligence. Overall, Mr. Whitaker suggests that the American public has been sold a bill of goods by pharmaceutical companies relative to the true effects of psychotropic medication on human behavior. He provides a history of psychotropic drug development, picks apart the research funded by pharmaceutical corporations, and examines the social factors that incentivize a diagnosis of mental illness.
Mr. Whitaker does not supply any useful answers to the complex problems encountered by those affected by mental illness. Instead, he challenges the conventional wisdom and public beliefs around the effectiveness of medications such as Prozac, Paxil, Respirable, and Zyprexa. If Mr. Whitaker has one message for readers the message would warn individuals suffering from mental illness to be very cautious before following the advice of a mental health professional to start taking psychotropic medications. There is clear evidence these medications can potentially exasperate a mental health condition and become lifelong endeavors.
Mr. Whitaker is an excellent writer. “Anatomy of an Epidemic” is very readable although it deals with very technical peer-reviewed information. He has a clear and efficient writing style that communicates very well to readers with a basic familiarity related to psychotropic medication and mental health diagnosis.

2 people found this helpful