The $3 billion fine against GlaxoSmithKline for mis-selling antidepressants and other medication reveals the commercialisation of mental healthcare. But an alternative to medication is learning to manage your states of mind. Mindfulness-based approaches that draw on Buddhist practice are making that a realistic alternative to Big Pharma. Thought for the Day 7/7/2012
Each year serious depression affects six percent of UK adults and 121 million people worldwide. At some time in our lives, one in six of us will experience an episode and the World Health Organisation predicts that by 2020 depression will be the largest single health issue in developed countries.
As well as being a personal hell for its sufferers, tackling depression is big business. This week GlaxoSmithKline accepted a $3 billion penalty from US authorities after pleading guilty to wrongly marketing two leading anti-depression drugs and a range of other misdemeanours. But even this huge penalty may be offset by the $17 billion sales of the same drugs in the years covered by the settlement alone.
The case raises ethical and regulatory issues, but the wider context is the commercialization of mental healthcare. Drug companies have a natural interest in finding pharmacological solutions to medical problems and use their considerable resources to promote them to both doctors and patients. Medication can certainly help, and sometimes there’s no alternative, but many of us reach first for a prescription when problems arise. I suspect we find that congenial. We often seem to treat our minds and bodies like a car that goes wrong: we want to get them fixed and so we can get on with our lives
But another body of thought holds that addressing the underlying causes of depression, not just tackling its symptoms, means changing how we live and even how we think. A substantial movement along these lines is underway in mainstream healthcare and clinical psychology, and rather surprisingly, it draws on Buddhist meditation and mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, for example, aims at avoiding depression relapse. Using meditation, it asks people to accept the troubling thoughts and feelings that can grow into depression, seeing them as part of their experience, at least for now. That mirrors the Buddhist understanding that we suffer because what we want is at is at odds with the way life is. The alternative is turning towards reality with awareness and finding a more creative response. I see in my own work as a mindfulness trainer that when people stop fighting what they find challenging and judging themselves harshly they are able to access a kinder response and a sense of peace.
This assumes that people have the resources within themselves to cope more effectively. That doesn’t mean there’s no place for drugs in alleviating the effects of depression; but you can also help yourself. And that’s an important insight whether you’re depressed or not.