Mental Illness, Right & Wrong, Drugs, and Violence

Elahe Hessamfar
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The recent incident in the grounds of Washington Capitol, involving a young educated woman, Miriam Carey, brought shock to many people. It was another opportunity to blame a victim of mental illness and demand further restraint and medical attention for such individuals. “The initial portrait of Carey that emerged suggested a person unlikely to be found at the center of such violent drama,” says The Washington Post, “Carey, according to public documents, friends and family members, had finished college and established a work history as a dental hygienist.”1

It is easy for a society, which does not want to take accountability for its shortcomings to hang on to scapegoats and blame a lack of medical treatment for the mentally ill. Yes, we certainly do suffer from a lack of appropriate and effective treatment for the sufferers of mental traumas. Yes, we are lacking dignified, caring, discerning and attentive treatment for those whose spirits are broken. But we certainly don’t suffer from a lack of medical treatment for such individuals. In fact, if anything, we suffer from overmedication, and hurtful treatments that may damage a person’s ability to make right and wrong decisions.

In the midst of all chaos and pain and suffering, it is easy to blame the sufferers and grasp for straws that cannot hold the weight of our challenge and adversary. The concept of abundant violence by those suffering from mental illness (particularly “schizophrenia”) due to the lack of medical treatment has been touted in popular media. There is no scientific evidence to show that the lack of medical treatment has facilitated these awful events. In fact, if anything, most recent episodes of violence were committed by people who were on some kind of psychiatric drugs on and off. In regard to Carey’s case, CNN reported that authorities “found medications in her apartment to treat schizophrenia and other mental disorders.”2

The prominent psychiatrist, Peter Breggin, has reported in his research that psychiatric drugs are the culprit behind the violence by those who suffer from “mental illness.”  In Medication Madness, he discusses, “The Role of Psychiatric Drugs in Cases of Violence, Suicide,and Crime.” The investigative journalist, Robert Whitaker, has effectively argued for the unforeseen changes in the brain of those on psychiatric drugs.4 The neuroscience and psychiatric literature is filled with the evidence of change in the human brain as a result of psychiatric drug consumption.5

It is valid to question whether a person whose brain structure has been altered by the use of these drugs loses his insight and his judgment of right and wrong. I suggest that it is that loss of insight that may lead to foolish and harmful acts completely foreign to the person’ s native character and values. The scientific studies clearly show a sense of dysphoria on the part of those on antipsychotic drugs. Kapur explains that though the condemning voices and delusions may persist for years after the person has been put on medication, it has been repeatedly reported by patients that these elements don’t “bother” them “as much anymore.” Referring to pivotal studies in the 1950s, Kapur explains that “antipsychotics induce ‘a forgetfulness of motive’ . . .  this core finding has been replicated in hundreds of different paradigms over half a century and remains the single fundamental property shared by all effective antipsychotics.”6

Contrary to Psychiatry’s assertion that the mentally ill have no “insight” due to their illness — a justification for compulsory treatments — I suggest, it is their true insight about right and wrong that brings them to rage against the evil voices they hear. After being medicated for a while, and after having experienced structural alterations in their brain, they are not as bothered by the voices they hear, possibly because they have lost their true insight and a judgment of right and wrong. Possibly, because their brain is numbed out, and they’re no longer bothered by the voices, they quietly follow the commands given to them, and their seemingly controlled “delusions” give us a false sense of security. Yes, I know there are people who are helped by these drugs and are functional members of the society. But I am not talking about those few fortunate ones! I am referring to the majority of sufferers who have lost their true identity and personhood through overmedication and coercive treatments.

This is my first post on this blog, so I am unknown to most readers of this blog. Here I am not speaking as a PhD researcher who has dedicated her life to understanding the human side of mental illness, but as a mother of an adult child who was diagnosed with “schizophrenia” at the peak of her life, after graduating from one of the best universities in this country. This is not the time and space to give her story or even my story of a care-giver who has witnessed the ups and downs of her struggle. My daughter Helia was treated with a variety of psychiatric medications for the first 5 years of her illness. She suffered from severe persecutory voices and finally was led into catatonia, which went on for about 2-3 years. Unfortunately, none of her drugs helped her to control her demons.

It was finally after years of struggle that she stopped taking her medications. She has been without medication for about 7-8 years now (the dates are blurry in my mind). I have cared for her all this time and I have witnessed her struggles and brave fight to overcome the evil that has overtaken her. She finally came out of her catatonic state to everyone’s surprise, but her challenges continued and by all western standards she is quite dysfunctional today; but she is alive and she is participating in life. In fact, the voices continue to command her to do things that are quite strange and incomprehensible.

But in the midst of chaos, I see her setting boundaries for her voices. Many times I have heard her in rage telling them that: “I refuse to do this…You cannot make me do this one thing!” I don’t know what “this one thing” is. But I am assured by her sense of control over the limit that she allows the voices to go. Deep inside her, her sense of right and wrong controls her choices, because her brain is not so confused by overmedication and alterations that would put her at the mercy of the commands coming to her. She is absolutely harmless, and more innocent than many, who instead of respecting the dignity of the human spirit, by stigmatizing the sufferers of mental illness, epitomize proclivity of humanity to harm one of her own.

More importantly, I’ve learned that leaving her unmedicated, the voices can play a purposeful and intentional role. They speak to her inner pains and brokenness, and the pains and depravity of her immediate community. She is an instrument in God’s hand to bring true healing to those around her. It takes discerning ears to hear, and perceptive eyes to see the depth and intentionality of this phenomenon. I have just completed a whole PhD dissertation on this topic.7 Helia is a blessing and a heavenly gift to her family and those who encounter her.

It is time for us to face the reality of mental illness as a human phenomenon that takes over human soul at its most vulnerable moment. This has been a part of the fabric of human nature for centuries and most research shows that trauma, environmental and cultural settings have a lot to do with its manifestation. It is time for policy-holders, and our scientific community to ask the “heretical question” of “Could the drugs be the culprit behind the violence?”

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References:

1 Miriam Carey, driver shot near U.S. Capitol, likely struggled with mental illness, police say (Washington Post)
Source: Mental health paperwork found at home of Miriam Carey after Capitol chase (CNN)
Peter Roger Breggin, Medication Madness: A Psychiatrist Exposes the Dangers of Mood-Altering Medications, 1st ed. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), 384.
Robert H. Whitaker, Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America (New York: Crown, 2010)
As example see, Kristen J. Brennand et al., “Modelling Schizophrenia using Human Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells,” Nature 473, no. 7346 (13 April 2011); Beng-Choon Ho et al., “Long-Term Antipsychotic Treatment and Brain Volumes: A Longitudinal Study of First-Episode Schizophrenia,” Archives of General Psychiatry 68, no. 2 (February 1, 2011)
Shitij Kapur, “Psychosis as a State of Aberrant Salience: A Framework Linking Biology, Phenomenology, and Pharmacology in Schizophrenia,” American Journal of Psychiatry 160, no. 1 (January 1, 2003), 16.
Elahe Hessamfar, ““In The Fellowship of His Suffering:” A Theological Interpretation of Mental Illness, A focus on “Schizophrenia”” (PhD diss., Department of Divinity, University of Aberdeen, 2013)

13 COMMENTS

  1. I couldn’t agree more with this article. We must find a way to get the public, legislators, and the media to look at the fact that in virtually every instance of mass shootings and the behavior of the poor woman in Washington, D.C., all of these people were on psychiatric drugs. How we do it though, after many years of allowing ourselves to be bought off, is a difficult question.

    • Well, I think a good START would be helping writer/director Kevin P. Miller to finish and promote his new film, which is at present 75 percent complete! Kevin’s last movie, Generation Rx was almost picked up by HBO. The time is NOW for his new film, based on the thousands of letters he received from grateful people (grateful to Kevin that is, for telling their story) – people who were harmed by our current deeply flawed paradigm of mental “illness” treatment.

      Kevin’s films answer the “‘heretical question’ of ‘Could the drugs be the culprit behind the violence?'” with a resounding “YES!” and he highlights a better way – what Elahe Hessamfar describes as a “dignified, caring, discerning and attentive treatment for those whose spirits are broken”

      Only $43,000 more needed to fund the project. You can check out the 2 minute teaser and make a donation here:
      http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/letters-from-generation-rx

  2. I really love and admire the way that you so highly value your daughter’s gifts, personal power, and creative process. I think that’s a great parenting example, under *any* circumstances. Certainly, if we had more of this, we could probably eradicate psych meds, altogether.

  3. Thank for you for this inspiring post. I am determined to follow your example by creating a sanctuary for my adult daughter where she can be herself without fear of being hospitalized, incarcerated, feared, labeled, pathologized, or forcibly medicated. I don’t care if she talks to herself or is catatonic or makes people feel uncomfortable. She is a blessing in our life and the lessons that she teaches us everyday are the ones that have had the greatest impact on our lives. The healing for our family lies in learning to love our daughter

    for the person she is becoming, not wishing her to return to her ‘old self’ As we learn acceptance and tolerance, it is the rest of the world, not our daughter, that we want to change.

  4. Thank you. This is a lovely piece. I wish more family members would see the person who is in the state of becoming, not the “illness.” I truly believe that we can all emerge stronger, and more healed, if we pay attention to and respect what our relative is struggling to express.

  5. This article brought tears to my eyes. My heart aches for all those suffering from mental illness who aren’t fortunate enough to be guarded with love and tenderness by a wise caretaker like Ms. Hessamfar. Her article points to the horrors that psychiatric overmedication can wreak in a human brain more powerfully than thousands of scholarly articles written by scientists. Maybe it’s because the compass that guides her so keenly is one that those motivated by fear, shoot first and ask questions after, have lost completely: Just pure and wholehearted compassion!

  6. I SO agree with your words, “we are lacking dignified, caring, discerning and attentive treatment for those whose spirits are broken.” If only we had more of what the Hearing Voices Network offers, for example. http://www.intervoiceonline.org/ (Perhaps their methods might help your own family.)

    Here is a HVN leader, voice hearer and research psychologist Eleanor Longden, speaking at the 2013 TED conference about learning to live (an abundant life!) with her voices.
    http://www.ted.com/talks/eleanor_longden_the_voices_in_my_head.html

    Thank you so very much for boldly and “heretically” suggesting that psychiatric drug treatments can not only harm the individual, but can also be the culprit behind the violence we keep hearing about in the media. We all need to be repeating this “heretical” suggestion. As Helen Keller said, “The heresy of one age becomes the orthodoxy of the next.”

    Even Jesus was thought to be a heretic as well as a madman. The gospel of Mark describes how Jesus’ own family thought he was mad – “they went to take charge of him, for they said ‘He is out of his mind.’” Mark 3:21 But taking charge of somebody who is acting “strangely” by trying to force chemical control on them is not the answer. As you have so clearly explained, understanding and compassion illuminate a better way.

    I agree that it does indeed take “discerning ears” and “perceptive eyes” to comprehend the phenomenon of “madness, ” combined with patience – lots of patience.

    He who has ears, let him hear.

    I certainly hope we will be hearing MUCH more from Elahe Hessamfar.