Psychiatric drugs kill an estimated 500,000 people per year, looking only at people over age 65 living in Western countries, according to an analysis conducted by a world-renowned Danish researcher.
Peter Gotzsche, research director at the Nordic Cochrane Centre, cited the figure in an article published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), in which he argues that psychiatric drugs have only “minimal” benefits but very severe side effects. Most use of these drugs could be halted without doing any harm, he says.
The article is part of a discussion published in the journal as a lead-up to a debate that took place at King’s College London on May 13. The debate and discussion both focused on whether psychiatric drugs do more harm than good. In the BMJ discussion, the article supporting the importance of psychiatric drugs was co-authored by John Crace – a psychiatric patient who writes for the Guardian – and Allan Young, a researcher who admits to major financial involvement with the drug industry.
Gotzsche is a highly reliable critic of the drug industry. A physician since 1984, he specialized in internal medicine and spent much of his early career as a representative for drug companies. He later established a medical department at a drug company, which was responsible for clinical trials and new drug registration.
In 1993, Gotzsche co-founded the Cochrane Collaboration, the globally respected organization that devotes itself to reviewing medical research data in support of evidence-based medicine. Gotzsche’s credentials as a researcher are also robust; he has been published more than 70 times in the “big five” medical journals (BMJ, Lancet, JAMA, Annals of Internal Medicine and New England Journal of Medicine), and his research has been cited more than 15,000 times. In 2014, his book Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime: How Big Pharma Has Corrupted Health Care won an award from the British Medical Association.
According to Gotzsche, the benefits of psychiatric drugs have been wildly exaggerated. In the BMJ article, he notes that most psychiatric drug trials produce unreliable evidence because they are conducted mostly on people who, until recently, were taking other drugs. Thus, participants suffer drug withdrawal in the early phase of the trial, only to later show “improvement,” ostensibly from the new drug.
Specifically, he notes that trials of the antidepressants venlafaxine (Effexxor) and fluoxetine (Prozac) showed almost no effectiveness over placebo. Trials of ADHD drugs have been ambiguous, while those for schizophrenia drugs contain troubling elements.
Gotzsche’s article draws particular attention to the relatively common and severe side effects of psychiatric drugs. He notes that psychotropic drugs are really only meant to be used for short periods, and are “immensely harmful” if used over the long-term.
“They should almost exclusively be used in acute situations and always with a firm plan for tapering off, which can be difficult for many patients,” he writes.
Gotzsche analyzes data showing that psychiatric drugs of three types (antidepressants, antipsychotics and benzodiazepines) kill 3,693 people over the age of 65 each year in Denmark, which scales up to an estimate of half a million in the United States and European Union combined. In addition, he says that drug-induced suicides have been vastly underreported in clinical studies.
“Their benefits would need to be colossal to justify this, but they are minimal,” he writes.
Writing of ADHD drugs specifically, he says they provide only “short-term relief,” but at the cost of “long-term harm.”
“Animal studies strongly suggest that these drugs can produce brain damage, which is probably the case for all psychotropic drugs,” he writes.
“Given their lack of benefit, I estimate we could stop almost all psychotropic drugs without causing harm – by dropping all antidepressants, ADHD drugs and dementia drugs … and using only a fraction of the antipsychotics and benzodiazepines we currently use,” Gotzsche concludes. “This would lead to healthier and more long-lived populations.”