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Psychotropic Medications: Too Many Choices, Not Enough Innovation

Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.: Fri, Aug 30th 2013

Did you know that there has not been a truly unique psychotropic drug (that works) to surface in the last 30 years?

different pills lying on background"Nonsense!" you might be thinking. It seems as though every few months we're bombarded by pharmaceutical commercials touting the next best treatment for depression, bipolar disorder, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Yet according to a New York Times article by Dr. Richard Friedman, all of the newest, coolest drugs out there are simply "me too" medications - in other words, they do exactly the same things in the brain that the older drugs did.

There is an advantage to some of the newer drugs in their reduction of side effects. But Dr. Friedman's point is that even though the newer medications may not be as harmful or uncomfortable to take, they still don't really work any differently or any better than the psychotropic drugs being prescribed 60 years ago.

Now that's disturbing. Considering that 20 percent of Americans take at least one medication for a mental health condition, you'd think we'd be working a little bit harder to find better ways to treat mental illness.

Part of the problem is that drug development is a high-cost, high-risk endeavor. Pharmaceutical companies simply aren't willing to take the chance that a novel idea about how to adjust brain chemistry might not work. It's safer to invest in a mechanism that they already know kind of works and then tweak production just a little bit so they can say that the pill is new and improved. But what this leaves us with is a whole population of people who are kind of getting some help.

Another part of the problem is a shortage of participants in clinical trials. I once read that it takes an average of 15 years for a drug to move from conception in a lab to production for the general public. Sure, there are regulations to be followed and lots of red tape involved, but many of these 15 years are spent (unsuccessfully) recruiting people to participate in drug studies.

Perhaps this provides us with an opportunity to improve the process. Check out to search for clinical trials near you in which you might be able to participate. If companies can reduce the time and costs involved in the recruitment of subjects, perhaps they'd be more willing to develop truly novel medications that treat mental illness better than our current glut of choices.


Friedman, R. A. (August 19, 2013). A dry pipeline for psychiatric drugs. The New York Times (


Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.

Itís a true blessing to have you visit my blog on mental health and wellness. I also write blogs on faith and caregiving in addition to teaching part-time for Columbia College of Missouri. For more information about my background and writing, visit my webpage at

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Meds aren't always the answer - Janet Singer - Sep 15th 2013

Good article. Most people, as you say, think new meds are coming on the market all the time. My son suffered from severe OCD and was on many different drugs......none helped him and most hurt him. Thank goodness he finally got the right treatment..Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy, as it literally saved his life. Let's not forget the benefits of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for so many mental illnesses.

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