Richard G. Petty, MD

When Is It An Illness?

There’s been a very worrying trend in recent years, and that is constantly to medicalize every kind of behavior: we are no longer allowed to be shy, we have to be “socially phobic;” many things once regarded as vices, like excessive gambling, drinking or eating are now being re-cast as impulse control disorders and adolescent temper tantrums could be “Intermittent explosive disorder.” And I now read a report about giving selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) antidepressants to people with emotional lability.

In April of this year the Public Library of Science published a series of articles on the important topic of “disease mongering,” which two authors define as “the selling of sickness that widens the boundaries of illness and grows the markets for those who sell and deliver treatments.” The authors made the point that some of the medicalization of human behavior is being driven by some pharmaceutical companies. They picked on several conditions or illnesses in which claims of prevalence and severity have been inflated in order, they claimed, to generate a need for medicines. One of their targets was female sexual dysfunction, where there has been a serious attempt to convince the public in the United States that 43% of women live with this condition. Many experts have heavily contested those figures.

One of the big worries about expanding the boundaries of an illness is that it is easy to throw out the baby with the bathwater. To use this last example: saying that the figures for female sexual "dysfunction" are inflated can lead some clinicians to dismiss everyone who has a problem, and then not to treat people with genuine organic difficulties. It is tragic to see people referred to a psychiatrist for a physical problem like low testosterone or undiagnosed diabetes or thyroid disease.

There can also be marked differences of opinion about the nature of illness. “Premenstrual dysphoric disorder,” (PMDD), is a particularly severe premenstrual syndrome, with some additional mood features. The American Psychiatric Association has precise diagnostic criteria for PMDD. The regulatory authorities in the European Union decided that this was not a real illness and declined to let a pharmaceutical company market a medicine for it.

I’m all for doing anything that I can to help people and to alleviate suffering. Part of the problem is that it is acceptable to have a “disorder.” The prevailing attitude is that no one can be blamed for being sick. The reality is that by most estimates, 70% of human illness is caused by lifestyle choices. By turning everything into disorders we take away our responsibility for our actions.

Most people are not looking for the causes of their troubles, they want a quick fix. Changing is hard, it is inconvenient and it is much easier to believe a pill will make everything better.

The second issue is that “better living through chemistry” may not be. There’s been a question rumbling round for some time now: has the over-exposure of young people to antibiotics, analgesics and sleeping tablets, been partly responsible for the rise in asthma and in substance abuse in later life? We don’t know the answer but it is important for us to think about.

The third point is that we need to think about what we are doing to ourselves if we want to medicate our way to happiness. Do we really want to deny ourselves the opportunity for becoming happy by our own actions rather than relying on a pill and being told what is normal?

P.S. Four years ago the Nuffield Council on Bioethics produced an important report entitled Genetics and Human Behaviour: the Ethical Context. It looked at some of the ethical challenges that are coming with the constant new discoveries in biology, and warned against the dangers of widening diagnostic categories, to encourage the use of medication by people who would not necessarily be thought of as exhibiting outside the normal range. It is well worth reading.

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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