The pharmaceutical industry wields an immense amount of influence over both mental health professionals and the general public. With their unmatched power over regulatory processes and direct-to-consumer advertising, pharmaceutical companies create and shape knowledge of psychiatric illness.
There are at least two consequences to the entrenchment of corporations in matters of mental illness. First, diagnoses and treatment are forced to operate within industry-sanctioned frameworks. As a result, alternative models are largely devalued as having inadequate levels of explanatory power. Second, the embedded nature of pharmaceutical corporations in matters of mental health raises questions about conflicts of interest. Capitalist societies are structured upon profit extraction; a goal that is incompatible with serving human needs. This contradiction poses a quandary not only to the pharmaceutical industry and mental health practitioners, but society writ large.
Prioritizing the Individual
A fundamental premise of the pharmaceutical industry is that human problems have biological roots. Etiological explanations are centered on the corporeal realities of physiology and heredity. With regard to mental health, the site of treatment is the brain itself; which is typically framed as being inflicted with a form of ‘chemical imbalance.’ While this essay does not refute this line of reasoning more generally, it is important to highlight the one-sidedness of such a perspective. Both social and political explanations are excluded from discussion as potential causal factors. By focusing on the individual, the influence of structures of inequality in causing mental illness is overlooked. This approach is dangerous because it perpetuates a culture of individualism and fails to decrease levels of stigma.
Corporate demands for expansion and surplus-value are inconsistent with the American Psychiatric Association’s objective of “apply[ing] psychological knowledge to benefit society and improv[ing] people’s lives.” The pharmaceutical industry is accountable to shareholders and a board of directors, not the public. These corporations have the objective of manufacturing and licensing new products that can be marketed for profit. To magnify their bottom-lines, the pharmaceutical industry embarks upon campaigns of disease-mongering so as to convince individuals that they are sick. This is little more than robbery masquerading as medical intervention. Such a high degree of coordination between these corporations and the American Psychiatric Association casts a dim light on the allegiances of the mental health profession.
The most important question is: who and what do mental health professionals prioritize?
While most practitioners undoubtedly seek to assist their clients in spite of this contradiction, the dominance of pharmaceutical industries has changed the landscape of mental health. Direct-to-consumer advertising is only possible within an economic system that prioritizes competition. In an effort to surpass rivals, companies pour larger and larger sums of money into advertising their products. Increased costs of advertising are then shifted to the consumer, resulting in more expensive prescriptions. Consequently, the most vulnerable populations are subjected to the whims of an increasingly unfriendly market. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (also known as ObamaCare) fails to directly challenge a fractured and privatized health care system. To protect and assist mentally ill persons, society must move away from market-based ideologies toward more society-based solutions.
- American Psychiatric Association. 2015. Website retrievable at: http://www.apa.org
- Busfield, Joan. 2006. Pills, Power, Power: Sociological Understandings of the Pharmaceutical Industry. Sociology, 40 (2): 297-314
- Payton, Andrew & Thoits, Peggy. 2011. Medicalization, Direct-to-Consumer Advertising, and Mental Illness Stigma. American Sociological Association, 1 (1): 55-70