Page last updated at 07:04 GMT, Monday, 30 March 2009 08:04 UK

Life: A medical condition

By Alasdair Cross
Producer, Medicalisation of Normality

Charcot demonstrating hysteria
Hysteria once preoccupied medical science

Restless leg syndrome, social anxiety disorder, female sexual dysfunction, celebrity worship syndrome - it seems that a new illness is invented every week, covering every potential quirk in human behaviour.

Is the human condition becoming a medical condition?

Ten per cent of British children are regarded as having a clinically recognisable mental disorder, 34 million prescriptions for anti-depressants were written in the UK in 2007, while it is estimated that 10% of US children take Ritalin to combat behaviour problems.

Dr Tim Kendall, Joint Director of the National Collaboration Centre for Mental Health and a key government adviser is deeply concerned at what he sees as a medicalisation of a vast swathe of society.

He said: "I think there is an inherent danger from increasingly classifying people.

"If you look at the American Psychiatric Association 'bible', you'll see almost every piece of human behaviour can be classified as being in some way aberrant."

Dr Kendall sees dangers in a "tendency for new categories to be invented, often at the behest of drug companies looking for a new drug".

Medical historian, Dr Louise Foxcroft agrees, pointing to ill-defined conditions such as female sexual dysfunction and to the erectile hardness scale promoted by the producers of Viagra which she claims "is a creation of fear and anxiety".

It is certainly not a new phenomenon.

Historical ailments

Dr Foxcroft, author of 'Hot Flushes, Cold Science', has shelves of old medical textbooks stuffed with long-forgotten ailments.

I think there is an inherent danger from increasingly classifying people
Dr Tim Kendall
National Collaboration Centre for Mental Health

Among them is hysteria, the symptoms of which could range from excessive masturbation to excessive novel reading and a tendency to wander.

Common treatments for hysterical women, and they were invariably women, included opium, the removal of the clitoris and incarceration.

Later, neurasthenia became the fashionable mental affliction, suffered by the likes of novelist, George Eliot and philosopher Immanuel Kant.

These over-worked intellectuals were offered the more convivial option of Priory-style rehab retreats to help ease their troubled minds.

Such ailments and the chance of treatment were once confined to the upper classes but that has changed in the past 20 years.

US advertising

In 1997 the US fully legalised the advertising of prescription medicines.

Since then television ad breaks and popular magazines have been packed with explicit claims for the effectiveness of anti-depressants, behaviour modifying drugs and pre-menstrual tension treatments.

Prescriptions for the most heavily-advertised drugs have risen significantly.

Could we see a similar effect in the UK?

Dr Kendall is concerned by current European Commission proposals that could loosen the blanket ban on the advertisement of prescription medicines to European consumers.

Do not expect Prozac ads before Coronation Street or a Ritalin sponsored X-Factor.

However, the proposed shift would allow adverts on medical websites and in relevant magazines.

Dr Richard Tiner of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry says that his members are completely opposed to 'direct to consumer advertising' on the American model.

Dr Kendall, an adviser to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, said: "It's far better that independent bodies like NICE provide the evidence, turned into plain English for patients.

"I'd far rather that's what patients got than so-called information provided by a pharmaceutical company."

If the proposals become law then, as in the US, we can expect to see even more new conditions and new drugs to treat them, new ways not to be 'normal'.

'The Medicalisation of Normality' is broadcast on BBC Radio Four at 2100 BST on Monday 30 March and repeated on Wednesday 1 April at 1630 BST.

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