The pharmacological revolution

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Drugs are central to the ways modern clinicians handle mental disorders, but medicines for specific conditions are a very recent innovation.  The first major breakthroughs in anti-psychotic, anti-depressant, and mood-stabilising drugs did not come until the early 1950s. Anti-depressants like imipramine were first used in the late 1950s and lithium as a mood stabiliser for manic depression a decade later.  Valium became the world’s most widely prescribed drug in the 1960s and then, in the late 1980s, the anti-depressant Prozac achieved fame.  Most of the best-known drugs were developed as sedatives, and their value in psychiatric cases only became evident by accident.  Even now, when pharmacological solutions are more readily available and more consistently effective than in the past, clinicians recognize that drugs can only treat symptoms. Understanding the scientific basis of mental illness is invaluable, but it does not always help, let alone cure the mentally ill. Psychotherapy remains essential.


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