The Meds of the Future


Waiting for the Next Magic Pill


In the more than quarter century since the arrival of Prozac, the drug that Newsweek’s cover once declared the “breakthrough drug for depression,” we’ve seen the landscape of the mental health field transformed by the extraordinary growth of the psychopharmacology industry. Combined sales of antidepressants and antipsychotics in the United States accounted for less than $500 million in 1987, but annual sales today exceed $29 billion. Currently, 1 in 8 people regularly takes psychotropic medications, 10 percent of the entire population over the age of 6 use some kind of antidepressant, and antipsychotics have replaced cholesterol-lowering agents as the top-selling prescription drugs. While the number of people in psychotherapy has declined over the past decade, the multibillion-dollar advertising offensive waged by the drug companies year after year has succeeded in convincing the media and the general population that many psychological problems are primarily the result of chemical imbalances within the brain.

Amid the many controversies surrounding the influence of the drug companies on the quality of mental health care, one important fact about the medications brought to market over the past 25 years has received little attention—few represented any real advance in the science of psychopharmacology or any real expansion of our understanding of how to regulate the nervous system with chemicals. Almost all of the so-called “new” drugs have targeted the same…

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