Levine has a private practice in Fairfax, where he specializes in the treatment of non-compliant teens. In his new book he criticizes the mental health industry, which threatens to turn us all into drooling idiots , over-diagnosing and overmedicating anyone who shows signs of suffering from a multitude of psychiatric disorders.
There are plenty of disorders to choose from. More than ever, in fact. In 1952 psychiatrists diagnosed patients using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). There were 60 different psychiatric disorders to choose from. By 1994 the DSM-IV had expanded to include 400 diagnoses.
Here are some more facts: Roughly 28 million Americans are taking prescription anti-depressants; more than half of all Americans are obese, with 300,000 dying each year from obesity and related illnesses; suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens; per capita, more people in the United States are in jail or prison than in any other industrialized nation; more than 99 percent of American households have at least one television; only a third of eligible voters make it to the polling station; one out of three Americans is functionally, marginally or completely illiterate; 17 million Americans have attention deficit disorder; 17 million Americans have attention deficit disorder.
But what is behind such statistics? Are there any solutions? I spoke with Levine.
What are you hoping to accomplish with this book?
"Probably the purpose of it, for me, is to, number one, explain what's really going on behind the huge expansion of the mental health industry. Beyond that, it's to understand that what's going on -- it's not just the problem that there's a lot of marketing going on here instead of science, it's that we're being diverted from real, significant social issues going on, real dehumanizing influences taking over our society that are just being explained away by mental illnesses and mental disorder.
And the purpose is to also deal with what I see out there, which is a lot of really demoralized people who are looking for some kind of strategy, some kind of solution."
In the book, you claim that one in four Americans are taking some kind of psychiatric drug.
"For some people, they go, 'Huh! Seems like more than that to me.' In fact, I just listened to a radio show today and they were claiming my numbers were low. And then some people are just shocked; they say it can't be true. Conservative estimates on just anti-depressants are 10 percent (of the population), and then the conservative estimate on one kind of tranquilizer -- the benzodiazapines -- is six percent. So you've got 16 percent right there, and we're just getting going. There's huge increases in things like the anti-psychotic drugs. Actually most people don't know -- I don't have this in the book -- but Eli Lilly makes Prozac and Zyprexa (an anti-psychotic drug used to treat schizophrenia and biploar mania) and actually they make a lot more money with Zyprexa. Zyprexa actually grosses more. Anti-psychotic drugs -- even though supposedly there's only 1.3 schizophrenics per 100 people. It's supposed to be a small market. They're giving out these neuroleptics and anti-psychotics. They're giving them out more and more, so you've got lots of people taking them."
So how many people actually require the drugs they're taking?
"Well, there's two warring camps out there. One is saying that these are wonderful medications and another school of thought is saying all they do is just numb you out, they're not medications at all and there's not much difference between them and illicit drugs. In fact, some of these drugs are used exactly the same way. Some of these drugs, they become illicit drugs. What I'm really all about is having people really know what the truth of these things are and the hypocrisy of them and then for people to make a more informed judgement."
Whose fault is it?
"There's definitely several factors and it's easy to just pick out the drug companies, because they are the big money in the whole thing. They are the core of the mental health industry. Pfizer, for example, even before their last merger, is a company bigger than Microsoft. Drug company profit margins are four times as high as the rest of the Fortune 500 companies. The major part of this -- they're able to take that money and give that to the different major institutions like the American Psychiatric Association, which is the professional group of psychiatrists that take drug company money; the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, which is supposedly a consumer group. They take drug company money. So that's one huge force out there, but there's other forces, too. You've got a culture that has decided to deify technology, to worship technology and if you can convince people that anything is technology ... that's the thing that people are going to buy. The truth of it is that mental health is a psychological, spiritual, social thing and its probably the thing that least lends itself to high-tech solutions."
Then what is the solution?
"The alternative is completely the opposite of what the major institutions of psychiatry and psychology are doing, which, if you look at them, they're really low-tech and high-tech manipulations. The whole idea for me of somebody coming in for help and for therapy is to start dealing with what their feelings are and trying to make some sense of them. When you start to numb them and drug them away, you're really going to be counterproductive. For me, this is not healing going on, this is getting people to shut up. There are people out there who really think that what life is all about is numbing pain. When you're feeling anxiety, when you're feeling depressed, especially when you're feeling overwhelmed by it, their philosophy of life is to do anything you can to avoid that. And if that's what your philosophy of life is, who am I to tell you not to use drugs? But I do want to tell the world that there is just tons of hypocrisy if you think what you're doing is much different than people who are using illicit drugs."