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 asylums. Nerve 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, antidepressants, mood 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.
BibliographyD Healy, The Anti-Depressant Era (Harvard University Press, 1997)
A controversial surgical treatment to severe the nerves to the frontal lobe of the brain (responsible for attention, short-term memory and activities requiring planning and organization). It was used to treat severe mental illnesses but is now no longer used.
Drugs such as lithium carbonate used in the treatment of bipolar disorders
A behavioural disorder which begins in childhood. Symptoms include short attention span and impulsive tendencies, commonly but not always combined with hyperactivity.