Each time I see the initials for Mad In America, MIA, I think of the Vietnam war and lost young men. I remember engraved steel MIA bracelets, each with the name and birthday of one man lost to our world. We girls wore the ID bracelets of those lost men as if we were going steady with them.
Men. They seemed older to me then. But they were men only because they fought in a war. Had they stayed home, they would have been teenagers and college students waiting to be old enough to drink and vote.
They’re lost boys to me. They were eighteen or nineteen when they were sent away from home to kill and die.
Today, forty-five sounds young to me. Forty-five is a young age to die an unnecessary death.
I listened to a recent talk by Robert Whitaker that’s posted on Mad In America. Although I feel troubled by his report of the increasing numbers of Americans receiving disability payments for mental disorder diagnoses, I am more troubled by all the early deaths.
These deaths are very early deaths among patients taking psychiatric drugs. When I heard Mr. Whitaker quote one recent study that put the average age of death among a group of medicated patients at 45, I was stunned. Forty-five years old.
With such a large percentage of the American population taking psychiatric drugs, this is a deadly epidemic. This is a medical emergency.
Why aren’t we all wearing bracelets engraved with the names of these dead and lost children, brothers, sisters, parents and neighbors? Where are the black armbands like those we wore after the shootings of student war protesters at Kent State University?
In the spring of 1969 we sang about the “dawning of the age of Aquarius” and “the mind’s true liberation”. Our music almost seemed to transform the nightly death counts into the birth pains of a new age.
Then, in December of 1969, we watched television while they picked birthdays for the draft as if they were winning lotto ticket numbers. Except the prize was a one-way ticket to the killing fields.
The nightly news reports kept the reality of war in our faces every night. “Our boys” were dying on the six o’clock news.
Because of this media coverage, a public outcry arose.
We had peace marches and war protests, armbands and bracelets. People spoke up on the news against the deaths. As a nation, we managed to shut down that “unpopular war” at last. But before we stopped the killing, over five million people had died.
How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died?
There is a woman I see when I walk. Beth. She walks a lot too. She seems a gentle woman and wears a soft name. I guess the prescription drugs she takes from the way she moves and the things she says.
Each time I see her and say hello, she asks if she knows me. I introduce myself again. We shake hands. Each time we meet, she wants to know if she’s ever said anything that would make me think she’s “a nutso”. She encourages me to let her know if she says “anything crazy”. Each time, I reassure her of my pleasure at our meeting.
Since we spoke last, I can think only of Beth’s increased risk of an early death. She leaves the soft shadow of a real person on my mind. But a year from now I may not remember her.
The war and the muddy soldiers in their blotchy-green fatigues crouched a world away and, at the same time, crouched with us at our round oak dinner table. While we nine ate our boiled potatoes from heavy plates in our kitchen, those young men died far from home.
I remember them. The television made certain of this.
My head can’t tell the difference between my memories of digging our potatoes in the fields behind town and my recollections of the faces of those men who walked with their guns slung loose in their hands at dinner time.
When I listen, in my memory, to the sound of machine-gun fire on the evening news from half a century ago, I compare it to my memory of the blue jay’s summer screech. They both sound equally real to me. My memories of stitch-lines of dirt plumes raised by bullet strikes are more compelling than my memory of that jay’s blue feathers.
Television left a false reality trail as bright as real life even before advertisers got really, really good at it.
Mr. Whitaker said that eighty percent of Americans in a survey reported believing that chemical imbalances in the brain are the cause of emotional distress. My customers walked in the door proud to have this knowledge. They came prepared to engage with me in scientific discussions of neurotransmitters with information they had gleaned from television commercials and the internet.
Not one of them talked about signing up in a lottery for the chance at an early death.
I see the initials MIA and recall images of tropical forests, men wading the muddy Mekong delta, red blood and a man trapped inside a low, close cage in the tropical sun far from the fields of home.
These images are imprinted forever inside me, courtesy of television.
There have to be faces on the numbers, names on these statistics for there to be a public cry of outrage large enough to stop the advertising and give us a chance to put the brakes on this deadly epidemic.
It took faces every night on the evening news to stop the Vietnam war.
But who will show us their faces?
We’ve lost access to the ordinary media channels. Money speaks louder than truth in America.
These are actors’ faces we see over dinner now. Tragic faces bloom with new happiness after a kind doctor lets them have helpful pills developed by scientists.
Today’s commercials are more compelling than ordinary life. Their messages are bigger, louder and more seductive than anything real can ever be. Their messages grab hold and dig in.
Real life is made of quiet, soft, forgettable people.
How many deaths will it take before we change how we do business in America?
Thanks for reading.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.