The Truth About Big Pharma


Twelve years ago my voice joined the chorus of whiners griping about the evil ways of Big Pharma. I agreed with those accusing pharmaceutical companies of profiting from the weak and taking advantage of the sick. I uttered an Amen when reading angry editorials lambasting pharma reps for pushing drugs on vulnerable peeps to meet their bottom lines, asserting that these companies don’t give a damn about the devastating side effects of their products.

Pharma King and Medication X

My opinion was largely shaped by my experience with a psychiatrist whom I dubbed “Pharma King,” a physician highly recommended by my primary care physician and an outpatient psychiatric program I participated in. Although some professionals claimed he was the best psychiatrist in Annapolis, something seemed off from the very first visit. For starters, every time I sat in his waiting room, there were two pharmaceutical reps in line to see him. These attractive twenty-somethings were on a first-name basis with the receptionist. The familiarity of their casual conversations made me uncomfortable.

Pharma King sent every patient home with the same prescription – at least, every patient I saw leaving his office. It didn’t matter what your diagnosis was. The routine was the same. You described your symptoms, you visited his closet of pharma samples, and you left with a small bottle of Medication X and its accompanying brochure, six pages of side effects printed in a five-point font, listing everything from “ballooning like Violet in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” to “a running stream of diarrhea.”

Unfortunately, Medication X only worsened my symptoms, not to mention the 25 pounds it added to my hips. When I told him that I did not like the drug — not at all — he urged me to give it some time. His solution was to augment Medication X with other drugs. Lots of drugs. At one point, I was swallowing 16 pills a day. At least eight kinds of medication were coursing through my bloodstream.

A year after I left him, I discovered that Pharma King was making nice coin from Company X that manufactured Medication X. He was a regular presenter at pharmaceutical conferences, boasting about how well his patients were responding to the drug. I felt cheated and betrayed. I was beyond furious.

A more nuanced perspective

For at least a decade, I unfairly associated the entire pharmaceutical industry with the sins of Pharma King. It was akin to tossing out the entire Catholic faith based on the allegations of one bishop. Even as I relied on certain medications to treat my depression, I still drew devil horns on their brochures and rolled my eyes at their simplistic ads. I sought a doctor with no ties to the drug industry.

However, by participating in several advisory boards, I’ve been privy to the many objectives and missions of pharmaceutical companies to reduce suffering, to their agendas to help disseminate pertinent information. I see the genuine care and consideration on behalf of the community-engagement committees to help persons live fuller lives, the investment of various groups to design solutions for living with chronic conditions. I am impressed by their efforts to reduce stigma and beef up support for persons with mood disorders and with their many creative programs to educate persons about different paths to wellness.

Having tried to go without medication and living through the devastating results, I appreciate the life-saving force of pharmaceuticals in my life. A gluten-free diet, meditation, and yoga were simply not enough to manage my symptoms. Drugs are a critical piece of the treatment regimen for countless people, myself included. The research and innovations on behalf of pharma companies have afforded me a better life, and I am appreciative of their ongoing efforts for better treatments.

Protecting my authenticity

Having said that, though, collaborating with pharma companies remains a delicate issue for me. Pharma King’s revenues and the knot in my stomach I felt when I saw his numbers are foremost in my thoughts whenever I receive an invitation to collaborate on a project. I would never want my readers to put me in that category: a woman who sold out to make a few bucks. I’ve worked hard to earn a reputation as an unbiased, authentic voice.

I have considered not accepting any money from pharma companies – anywhere or anytime. However, such a policy would prevent me from contributing important feedback to their initiatives, from offering constructive insights about the realities of living with depression, from helping them design support programs that benefit many people. I have decided, instead, to weigh each opportunity carefully and ask myself these questions: Does this contribute to the common good? Can I stay objective and unbiased? Would getting paid for the project jeopardize my readers’ trust? On some occasions, I have declined payment–not because I felt pressured to say or do anything by the company, but because getting paid didn’t feel right. At other times a nominal stipend made it possible for me to collaborate.

With power comes responsibility

I no longer believe that pharmaceutical companies are inherently evil. In fact, I think they do a lot of good. In addition to their life-saving medications and innovations for effective treatment, they aim to educate patients and their loved ones, promote hope for persons with chronic conditions, and provide support for those who need it. However, pharmaceuticals must be dispensed and used responsibly. Put into the hands of the wrong people, they have the potential to do great harm. Like any powerful resource, they must be handled with prudence and sensitivity. Proper treatment must always take precedent over profit.

My mission is to be a trusted voice for those suffering from depression and my allegiance is to my readers. I proceed cautiously with anything that has the potential to distract me from that mission or diminish trust. That means declining pay at times, carefully evaluating opportunities, and abiding by integrity in everything I say and do. You can trust that I am no Pharma King.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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13 Responses
  1. Lizzie

    Such a difficult path to take Therese. It is so hard to go a long the straight path and not fluctuate your views. When drug companies make huge profits and I wouldn’t know how much they ploughing back into research.
    And in the UK some charge the NHS more than needed.
    Yet everyone has to make a living.
    When depressed you can disliked medications because of all the side effects. And the misinformed doctors who think one size fits all. Us sensitive souls may only need a homeopathic dose.
    I for one would not begrudge you some payment for all your hard work. If your voice is heard by drug companies maybe they would take notice of ‘ depressed peoples views? ‘
    How many drugs are discarded and thrown away because the effects on ones brain are not having the desired effect?
    If one finds a drug that works it can become a miracle drug to oneself but to another hell on earth.
    I admire you for being impartial and honest. Hard to decide if profit comes before producing the best drugs?? When there are so many horrid diseases to treat.

  2. Hyla

    So many lives lost over money and greed. So sad, so wrong. It is amazing when meds transform and devastating when they don’t, or when they never see the light of day due to profit….. such a powerful subject! I’m curious, Do you have any thoughts about LDN??? Ever tried it?

  3. Bonnie Favorite

    I, too, admire your honesty and your willingness to take a more thoughtful, nuanced look at the pharmaceutical industry. I wonder, though, if you could make public the list of pharmaceutical companies from which you are or have received compensation? I know that having this information would allow me to determine how much weight to give your recommendations.
    Thank you for allowing me to express my opinion.

  4. Edward

    My personal experience was that I never got well from anxiety and depression, truly well, until I got all the pharma drugs out of my system. They were bandaids that temporarily treated symptoms and gradually caused more issues than they solved – every single time. None of them addressed the underlying cause(s) of my suffering. It was a radical change of lifestyle and perspective that saved me – not a bottle of pills.

    I am not anti-medicine or anti-drugs. A course of well-timed antibiotics can be a God-send. But the literal flooding of the market of antidepressants, mood stabilizers and anti-anxiety medications – not to mention opioid drugs for pain – has helped to create a public health crisis in my opinion. While these drugs are being administered at record levels to record profits for the Pharma companies, rates of depression and suicide are also at record levels. Think about that for a minute. Future generations will look back on this period and scratch their heads…

    1. Patricia

      I admire your courage and willingness to sit among the Pharmaceuticals. Hold onto your integrity and always remind them whom you represent! If you have opportunity and willingness, let them know the REAL education and programs we most need! God bless and good luck!
      Patti (another child of St. Therese
      Of Lisieux – Of the Face of
      Child Jesus)

  5. Kelly H. Johnson

    I am not sure how some people might respond to the information in this article. So I want to say this as early and as loudly as I can: Bravo, Therese! Thank you for being a voice at the table for so many of us and our loved ones. After all, if we aren’t part of the conversation, we can’t be part of the solution. I trust in your integrity. I trust in your wisdom and discernment as you make these decisions. Very simply, I trust in you. And, for the record, that trust is not given out of kindness or affection. To the contrary, it has been *earned* —post after post, article after article, year after year. I, for one, feel a hell of a lot better knowing that you are there in those rooms advocating for us. So, thank you! And once again, Bravo!

  6. Kate

    I agree with Kelly. I have great trust in your integrity because you have lived this issue and have walked this road. I couldn’t live as well without my medication. It’s just that simple. therapy has been a God send. All of these things along with self care matter. But for me my medication brings me to a normal I have never before known. Thank you for being our advocate Therese. Thank you a million times.

  7. Claudia

    Thank you Therese. I have tried to stay off medications after med induced injury caused by protracted withdrawal syndrome and polydrugging with psych meds. The meds initially helped until several cocktails injured me. Now I live with tardive akathisia and worse depression that can’t be treated because now I can’t tolerate the antidepressants that years ago helped me. I have tried to go against big pharma but I still need low doses of some meds to survive the damage the meds did. I have to live with devastating and recurrent episodes of depression besides the neurological afternaths, and no Dr seems able to help me now. I fight hard every day, some days I just want to give up, but I keep fighting. I wish I had had the luck of being prescribed meds responsibly, humanly, in the doses and combinations according to my unique highly sensitive nervous system. I am still trying to find a way to heal.

  8. Estelle Paisley

    I just wondered if you had seen Dr Kelly Brogan & her take on alleviating depression & anxiety & if it was something you had already tried. I have just downloaded the book “A Mind of my own” I am no where near an expert on this but i think Kelly says that depression comes from our gut not our brain & 80% of seratonin is made in the gut. I would love your thoughts

  9. Avi Lidgi

    You are so awesome. I have bookmarked all of your sites and resources and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing your experience, strength and hope with those similarly affliceted, like myself. Depression is real, and it is relentless. Anything to combat it is welcome and your writing and resources are wonderful. Thank you!!!

  10. Katherine Lalli

    “whiners?” “griping?”
    Pharmaceutical company tactics have destroyed so many lives. They lie to the public about the cause of mental illness (chemical imbalance? If my illness is caused by a chemical imbalance, show me. Show me the test that proves that I have a chemical imbalance) and the so-called safety of the deadly opiod products that caused the current epidemic.
    Why would you dismiss the people speaking out against these tactics as whiners? And having dismissed such people as whiners, why would you expect anyone to take the rest of what you say with any seriousness?
    I know nothing about you or your website. Maybe you have some good things to say, but I won’t be reading anymore after seeing this.

  11. It’s a true crime that someone can make so much money just by prescribeing you a specific drug. I am on antidepressants, and I wish I wasn’t. I spent the majority if my life off of them and was doing ok with my depression and anxiety. Once getting on meds my life turned up side down. I had so many side effects. After so many prescriptions and side effects, I found a drug that makes me a little better than I eas doing without any meds… and now im stuck on them because the withdrawal is so terrible on me, I don’t know how ill ever get off of them.
    I do know many people who benefit from medication, so I don’t think it’s all bad, just not the best for me.
    Thank you for sharing your side

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