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Psychiatric drugs

Advert for Largactil, one of the first drugs for schizophrenia, 1961.

Advert for Largactil, one of the first drugs for schizophrenia, 1961.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London

Drugs have always been part of mental health care whether legal or illegal, prescribed or self-administered. Sedatives played a major role in controlling people inside asylumsNerve tonics helped people stay out of them. Specific drugs treating specific mental health problems only became reality after the Second World War.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a French pharmaceutical company investigated drugs for sedating patients during surgery. It discovered chlorpromazine, a drug which relaxed patients without making them sleepy. This attracted the attention of psychiatrists, who soon reported it ‘straightened out’ disordered thinking and behaviour. Chlorpromazine quickly caught on among psychiatrists in Europe and North America as it was less dangerous and labour-intensive than existing treatments for severe mental illness, such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and lobotomy. The idea of a ‘magic bullet’ to treat mental health problems, in a way comparable to penicillin treating infections, propelled research.

Laboratory research since then, both by academic researchers and by pharmaceutical firms, led to a great boom in drugs targeting mental health problems. These have included minor tranquilisers for anxiety, anti-psychotics, antidepressantsmood stabilisers and drugs treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Such drugs profoundly affected how mental health problems are treated. Their availability helped prompt the closure of many mental institutions in the 1970s and 1980s. They also contributed to the declining popularity of psychoanalysis.

These targeted psychiatric drugs had an extraordinary social impact too. Awareness of their use and discussion about how they work reduced the stigma surrounding mental illness. Many people find it more acceptable to attribute psychiatric symptoms to a chemical imbalance than to a psychological or emotional imbalance. In turn, this reduction in stigma helped increase the psychiatric drugs market. The stigma of mental illness, however, is not easily eliminated. It now settles on people who fail to respond to available drugs, or who stop taking their prescribed drugs against doctors’ advice.

Bibliography

D Healy, The Anti-Depressant Era (Harvard University Press, 1997)

Glossary:

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