The Corpus Callosum

WSJ: Fact-check Fail

An opinion article (There’s
No Pill for This Kind of Depression
) in the Wall Street Journal
contained the following unsupported claim:

The sale of antidepressants and antianxiety drugs is
widespread. In New York their use became common after 9/11. It
continued through and, I hypothesize, may have contributed to, the
high-flying, wildly imprudent Wall Street of the ’00s. We look for
reasons for the crash and there are many, but I wonder if Xanax, Zoloft
and Klonopin, when taken by investment bankers, lessened what might
have been normal, prudent anxiety, or helped confuse prudent anxiety
with baseless, free-floating fear. Maybe Wall Street was high as a kite
and didn’t notice. Maybe that would explain Bear Stearns, and Merrill,
and Citi.

The article was written by Peggy Noonan, one
of those journalists who sometimes writes things that I agree
with.  Overall, it is a good article.  But I could not accept
the statement about psychotropic drugs without checking it out.

As it happens, the American Psychiatric Association’s newsletter, Psychiatric
, had an article on that very subject:

Prescribing Patterns Not Impacted by Sept. 11

Jim Rosack
Psychiatric News September 6, 2002
Volume 37 Number 17

…Data provided to Psychiatric News by NDCHealth, an
independent firm that tracks and analyzes prescription drug sales and
marketing activity, show that for the year-long period from May 25,
2001, to May 24, 2002, dispensing of prescription antidepressants and
sedative medications–including benzodiazepines and other antianxiety
drugs, as well as nonbarbiturate sedative/hypnotics–followed a pattern
similar to that of the three previous years.

In general, prescriptions increased over the study period, with
cyclical fluctuations that follow established trends in antidepressant
and sedative prescribing…

In general, the number of prescriptions written increases each
year.  In addition, there is a seasonal trend.  More
psychotropics prescriptions are written in the autumn and winter. 
That is true every year.  So if you do not adjust for seasonal
variation, and only look at one year, it would be easy to conclude that
the attacks resulted in an increase in prescriptions. 

The author also looked to see if there was any difference between the
prescriptions written in New York City and Washington DC, compared to
the rest of the country.  The increase in New York City actually
was smaller than the increase in the nation as a whole. 
Washington DC increased at about the same rate as the rest of the
country, during that time period. 

Of course, none of that really affects the point of Noonan’s article:
people are becoming fearful of the economic crisis, and there is no way
to fix that with a pill. 

I should point out, though, that the notion that prescriptions of
antidepressatns and benzodiazepines could not account for the financial
crisis.  There are many reasons for the crisis.  It is not
possible for anyone to point to any single factor, and cite that as the


  1. #1 Katie
    July 22, 2009

    I am admittedly no kind of a professional, but the idea that Zoloft (or even Xanax, which certainly has more immediate psychotropic effects, but also pretty much makes you groggy and fuzzy-headed) would make somebody “high-flying and wildly imprudent” sounds like an idea dreamt up by someone with absolutely no comprehension of what these drugs actually are and what they do, like someone who thinks that Zoloft is a magic happy pill, take one and you’re euphoric. I understand that antidepressants can push undiagnosed bipolar patients into hypomania, but what Noonan is arguing is leaps and bounds different. In short, I think it’s totally stupid.

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