Heather sent in this image of the 10 most-prescribed psychiatric medications, found at Good. Each pill represents a million prescriptions, including both the brand name and generic forms. The key over on the bottom right side explain the conditions/symptoms they’re generally prescribed to treat.
While there are certainly many criticisms to be made of the pharmaceutical industry, and direct advertising to consumers has increased demand for medications, Heather points out that the graph also sensationalizes the use of psychiatric prescription drugs — the title “Drugged Culture” certainly doesn’t present a neutral view.
Heather points out,
The impression given by the graph’s mention that in 2009 there were more psychiatric prescriptions written than people in the US totally ignores the fact that, for many psychiatric drugs, treatment is determined by trial and error…doctors may try a number of different drugs before their patient’s depression is helped — and even after that, the calibration of dosing…requires more prescriptions for different doses and formulations (e.g., extended release pills) before the condition is adequately medicated.
And, of course, the use of psychiatric medications might seem much less striking if presented on a map showing the use of all prescriptions given to Americans in a year — antibiotics, allergy medications, and so on.
I went to the website of IMS Health, the source of the data in the above image, and found the breakdown of prescriptions by category; psychiatric medications make up just under 10% of all prescriptions:
This isn’t to say that the rapid increase in psychiatric medications isn’t worthy of concern or investigation. I just thought this is an interesting example about how the elements in graphic representations of data — titles, captions, images used, etc. — don’t just tell us what we’re looking at, but can clue us in to how we’re supposed to think about it, making it more likely that we’ll ask some questions about the issue than others.