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Psychiatric agenda 'set by drug firms'

Sarah Boseley, health editor

Monday July 9, 2001

A group of psychiatrists has made a formal protest to the president of the profession's royal college against a drug company's sponsorship of a conference opening today.

They complain that the industry's marketing distorts the mental health agenda to the point where pills are seen as the answer to all ills.

In a letter to John Cox, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the group says that money widely available for sponsorship of meetings and of doctors is an attempt to persuade psychiatry to go down the biomedical route and to ignoresocial circumstances that might be the true cause of an illness.

The group plans a symbolic protest outside the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre in London, where the annual meeting of the college is taking place today in conjunction with the World Psychiatric Association.

Two consultant psychiatrists, Pat Bracken and Philip Thomas from the University of Bradford, members of the group that calls itself the Critical Psychiatry Network, will join mental health service users in demonstrating their concerns.

"We want to open up the debate about the role of the drugs companies in terms of how we frame the issues facing mental health," said Dr Bracken. "Some of us are very unhappy at the way that has been hijacked in the past 20 years by the pharmaceutical industry."

The letter to Professor Cox expresses concern at the amount of advertising and sponsorship at the conference.

"We are also concerned about less overt but more dubious aspects of the relationship between the profession and the industry, such as sponsorship of individuals, local meetings and dinners," it says.

"Psychiatry is a major growth area for the pharmaceutical industry. By influencing the way in which psychiatrists frame mental health problems, the industry has developed new (and lucrative) markets for its products. This has had a major effect on the direction taken by psychiatry in the past 20 years."

The group fears what is termed by companies "medical education" - sponsorship activities that can include paying for doctors to attend conferences.

"In our opinion, their interest in medical education is purely self-serving. Drug companies see doctors as 'promotional tools', and their sponsorship of educational events amounts to nothing more than advertising."

The group claims that "biomedical frameworks" - the focus on drugs - increasingly dominate research and education in psychiatry, in spite of limited evidence as to how or whether the drugs work.

Dr Bracken points to a paper in the journal Ethical Human Sciences and Services last year on the efficacy of the SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) class of antidepressant, which includes Prozac, which concluded that the drugs worked little better than dummy pills - "there is a less than 10% difference in the antidepressant effect of drug versus placebo".

Dr Bracken and colleagues feel the drive to find a medical cause for all mental illness ignores issues such as poverty, family breakdown, or other social or cultural problems. They call for the college to pull back from the increasingly closerelationship with the pharmaceutical industry.