Can you guess the best-selling class of drugs? It may be that a fifth of Americans suffer gastroesophageal reflux disease at least once a week, over 30% have hypertension, and over a third of U.S. adults have high LDL cholesterol, but the best-selling class of drugs isn’t proton-pump inhibitors for reflux, or angiotensin II receptor antagonists for blood pressure, or statins. It’s anti-psychotics.
- Use as an add-on treatment to an antidepressant for adults with Major Depressive Disorder who have had an inadequate response to antidepressant therapy
- Treatment of manic or mixed episodes associated with Bipolar I Disorder in adults and in pediatric patients 10 to 17 years of age
- Treatment of Schizophrenia in adults and in adolescents 13 to 17 years of age
- Treatment of irritability associated with Autistic Disorder in pediatric patients 6 to 17 years of age
It’s commonplace for people to refer to themselves or others as “depressed” or “bipolar,” but that’s a far cry from a diagnosis. The NIH has a handy page with the statistics on mental illness. At the most generous estimate, 5-8% of the adult population can be diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, and Abilify isn’t even indicated for them — it’s indicated only for those who haven’t responded to typical antidepressants, which is half or less. Bipolar Disorder affects 2.6% of the popular, but Bipolar I, the more severe version defined by a week or more of mania or mania so severe it requires hospitalization, is only a small fraction of that. Schizophrenia affects 1% of the population. Finally, depending on your definition, between 0.8% and 1.2% of children have autism.
Adding all of those up gets us to 5% or so of the population that could even qualify for Abilify, less than a quarter of the people with GERD, hypertension, or high cholesterol. So who is taking all of this Abilify, and why? As the Wall Street Journal reported last week, “Federal health officials have launched a probe into the use of antipsychotic drugs on children in the Medicaid system, amid concern that the medications are being prescribed too often to treat behavioral problems in the very young.” The quote Mark Duggan, a health-policy expert at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, saying that more than 70% of the cost of the five leading antipsychotics was paid for by Medicaid and other government programs.
While the public school system in many urban areas is in collapse — a problem we feel quite acutely here in Philadelphia — and there’s still no interest in putting tax dollars into early childhood education or after-school problems, and even the upper-middle-class can’t afford childcare so both parents can work, it seems Medicaid has $3.6 billion to spend on antipsychotic medications like Abilify, Zyprexa, Geodon, and Seroquel. (That’s just as of 2008 — the number is likely double or higher now given how rapidly prescriptions have grown.)