What has happened to drive down violent crime in America?That question has been perplexing researchers for more than a decade. Despite what the nightly newscasts might lead you to believe, the average American is much safer today than at any time in recent history. After more than four decades of steady increases, America's violent crime rate started decreasing dramatically in the early 1990s. It now is at a level not witnessed since the 1970s. Experts are still debating what exactly caused the drop. But a landmark study recently released by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that a big reason was the improvement in the quality and availability of psycho-pharmaceuticals - that is, drugs used to treat mental illness. This study, which was co-authored by Dave Marcotte of the University of Maryland and Sara Markowitz of Emory University, examined evidence from 1997 through 2004. They concluded that as much as 12 percent of the drop in violent crime during that period is directly attributable to the increased use of psychiatric drugs. Mental illness often makes people prone to committing crimes. Bipolar disorder, for instance, is tightly associated with delusional thinking and impulsive behavior, both of which can contribute to violent behavior. Fortunately, the pharmaceutical industry has developed increasingly sophisticated treatments for these conditions. Millions of patients who might have been ravaged by mental illness now have a relatively low-cost way to control the frequency and severity of their symptoms. The availability of psycho-pharmaceuticals has also significantly improved in recent years. Between 1990 and 2003, the portion of mental illness sufferers on medication increased from 20.3 percent to 32.9 percent. That is equivalent to about 10 million additional people receiving treatment. Some countries have witnessed the drug-crime trend in reverse, lending additional credence to the study's conclusion. Japan, for example, didn't experience an increase in the sale of antidepressants in the 1990s, and it is unique among most developed countries in that its crime rate actually increased over that same period. Recently, some groups that advocate on behalf of patients, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), have come under criticism for accepting contributions from the pharmaceutical industry. But NAMI and the drug companies are natural allies because pharmaceuticals are often the only effective treatments for patients suffering from mental illness. Both parties need to work together because they share the goal of expanding access to cutting-edge mental health drugs. A campaign is underway on Capitol Hill to unleash an avalanche of new government regulations and fees on the pharmaceutical sector. Most of these provisions would dramatically increase the costs of producing and developing medicines. That would, in turn, leave fewer dollars for new research, slowing the rate of innovation and undermining the invention of new drug treatments. Pharmaceuticals give patients with mental illness the chance at a normal life. And this study shows that improvements in drug treatments have made our streets much safer. It's in all of our interest to oppose policies that would result in decreased investment into research needed to create newer and better drugs that improve the quality of life for those taking the drugs and for society as a whole. Grace-Marie Turner is president of the Galen Institute, a non-profit research organization focusing on patient-centered solutions to health reform. She can be reached at P.O. Box 320010, Alexandria, VA, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
********** Published: November 6, 2009 - Volume 8 - Issue 29