I have a real appreciation for Steve Jobs’ suggestion about connecting the dots in your life – he said you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. Only now can I trace the dots of my concerns regarding psychiatric medication and spirituality.
In 2007 I returned to school to pursue a bachelor’s degree in psychology. I remember being confused by the over-emphasis on biological treatments for suffering which seemed to me much more spiritual and relational in nature. A few years earlier, my misgivings had been stirred as I sat on a California beach listening to a friend tell me about what it was like to be on Prozac. She told me that she couldn’t really cry anymore, or connect to her deeper feelings. She couldn’t orgasm. I recall my throat closing up, my thoughts running panicky and confused. I was so disturbed by the power of this drug to rob her of her tears and climaxes, experiences I associated with the more private, sacred parts of being human.
While pursuing my masters in psychology counseling, I primarily focused my coursework on mindfulness-based interventions. I became very interested in compassionate, individualized approaches to care. Witnessing the ubiquitous use of drugs as a first-line therapy remained a serious concern. I continued to worry about the effects the drugs might be having on a person’s spirit. The psychiatric literature reported numerous physical, mental and cognitive side effects of taking psychiatric medication. I began to wonder if these effects were in fact having an impact on an individual’s spiritual dimension as well. I see spirituality as a highly personal concept; it can mean lots of different things to different people. Within academic literature, it is a diverse and evolving construct, and is commonly associated with a person’s deepest values, notions of connectedness, and with the quest for meaning in one’s life.
Was feeling tired all the time on medication experienced as an interruption of a person’s deeply valued activities or states of mind? Was the stigma of medication perceived by users as a disruption of feeling connected to others, or to oneself? Did the mental fogginess caused by the drugs impact a person’s search for significance in their life? I speculated on the possible overlap between the physical and mental side effects commonly associated with psychiatric medication, and the impact these effects might have on a person’s expression and experience of their spirituality.
It was only after I attended a lecture by Robert Whitaker in the spring of 2012, and subsequently read his book Anatomy of an Epidemic, that I decided to do my PhD research on the impact of psychiatric medication on a person’s spirituality. There were a few anecdotal accounts in Anatomy of an Epidemic which, to me, stuck out as billowing red flags. Like when Cathy describes her life of cycling in and out of hospitals, saying, on pg. 20, “With a life on antipsychotics, you lose your soul and you never get it back.” And there was the quote from a NY Times article on the torture of Russian political dissidents through the forced administration of atypical antipsychotics; the Times concluded that this amounted to a form of spiritual murder (pg. 267). We all have our triggers, our responses to what we have read, and in a book filled with so much potential for response, these two passages would. not. let. me. be.
Does psychiatric medication have an impact on a person’s spiritual and/or religious life? If so, what kinds of impact are people experiencing, is medication interfering with their spirituality, or is it working to enhance their ability to connect with this dimension in their lives? This is the focus of my study at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, under the supervision of Professor John Swinton and Dr. Helen Bedford.
To be clear, I am not the kind of researcher who is concerned with prevalence rates, efficacy, or on drawing universal conclusions from the data. In academic terms, my study employs a qualitative approach using hermeneutic phenomenology. Simply stated, my aim is to understand the depth of peoples’ lived experiences, and the meaning these experiences hold for them. This is achieved primarily through unstructured interviews, using open-ended questions about what kind of impact a person perceives medication may have had on their spiritual and/or religious life. Phenomenology is sort of the opposite of having a hypothesis and then trying to gather data to support your theory; this method is best suited for research questions like mine; questions focused on the importance of understanding several different individuals’ experiences of a particular phenomenon. It is an approach which values human experience on its own terms, and it resists diminishing it or reducing it to inadequate language borrowed from other scientific perspectives.
Whether or not people believe in God, or identify as spiritual, they tend to attach significance and meaning to things in their life. I have come to believe in and trust the unique significance each person searches for in his or her life. This is why I’m deeply troubled by the prolonged use of treatment which is harmful to so many over the long term. “We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” is how a U.S. military official justified the senseless death of civilians during the Vietnam War. I sometimes imagine an analogous suggestion by the proponents of biological treatment, “We had to destroy the person in order to help them.” My hope is that the findings in this study will help to lift the voices of people who may be having a difficult time being heard.
An important aim of this study is to add to the growing body of knowledge which attests to the user’s perceptions of the effects of medication, not the psychiatrists, and not the pharmaceutical manufacturers. The national trends which show such dramatic increases in the use of medications over the last 25 years are not matched by rigorous studies into the lived experiences of the people taking them. It is hoped that the outcomes of this study will lead to greater understandings of the experiences of taking medication, which will facilitate more individualized, compassionate care for people who are suffering and are trying to get some help.
I’m looking to interview persons over the age of 18, who self-identify as either religious or spiritual, who are currently or have in the past taken a psychiatric medication, who are not currently in an acute phase of crisis, and who are willing and able to provide a rich verbal account of the experience. Interviews will take place in the UK and in the US. If you are interested in participating in this study, please contact me at [email protected]
Lynne E. Vanderpot received her Masters in psychology counselling in 2012 from Goddard College in Vermont, U.S.. Currently she is a first year Ph.D. student under the supervision of professor John Swinton at the University of Aberdeen’s Centre for Spirituality, Health and Disability. Her research is focused on exploring the impact of psychiatric medications on a person’s spiritual life.