Psychiatric drugs have the capacity to biologically cause all of the experiences that get labeled as mental illness; we need look no further than the lists of “side effects” provided by the drug companies themselves to know this. Psychiatric drugs have been known to frequently cause depression, anxiety, suicide, violent behavior, trouble focusing, psychosis, hallucinations, insomnia and delusions to name a few. How else do psych drugs cause the very illnesses they presume to treat? For one thing, historically, mental illness has risen exponentially with the creation of psych drugs and the rise in prescriptions.
The very shift from “mental illness” being a religious or personal problem in most cultures (not a medical illness at all) to an illness presumed to be caused by brain malfunction, directly coincides with there being some sort of medical treatment administered in the name of “legitimate medicine” as opposed to witchcraft/shamanism/occult practices, religious rituals or even basic common sense activities. Most research indicates this shift started in the 5th century BC with Hippocrates defining mental illness as a problem in the brain to be treated as an isolated physical condition. In contrast to witch hunts and vague mystical practices that couldn’t be officially quantified or qualified, this idea was perhaps a relief to the masses. Hippocrates used certain substances to treat these “brain problems” which were, perhaps the first notions of mental illness similar to the ones we so readily accept today, with names, symptom lists and specialized substances to treat each one.
Mental illness did not even exist as this type of phenomenon until there were substances or drugs to treat it. The religious or personal problems they were seen as earlier were not in the category of medicine, but rather issues of the soul, moral issues or other phenomenon considered to be outside of the self entirely such as demon possession.
There was never a biological brain disease until there were “medications” purported to correct chemical imbalances.
Is it safe to say psychiatric drugs themselves created mental illness and sustain the phenomenon? Let’s break this question down by pretending, for just a moment, that my wet dream came true and psychiatric medications ceased to exist (as FDA approved medicine. The drugs themselves could still exist as drugs). That’s right, no ads in magazines suggesting you ask your doctor about Abilify if your anti-depressant alone isn’t enough, no TV commercials to laugh at because they pay millions of dollars to tell you their drugs cause impotence, trouble breathing, diabetes and sudden death. No doctors, therapists or psychiatrists suggesting or prescribing any psychiatric pharmaceuticals whatsoever.
Let’s keep imagining this world. You are having an extreme time in life. You feel exasperatingly alone, freaked out, your heart is racing, you are having an out of body experience, a threatening voice in demanding you do something dangerous, and you wish there was something, anything that would take the edge off. Even a pill. Okay, so you figure something out-you ask for help- you drink some vodka or eat something or you smoke a joint or go for a run or cry into someone’s arms. There are infinite things you can do at that moment. Infinite.
The only option you don’t have is to go to a doctor covered by your insurance company and get free or cost-subsidized drugs and a mental illness diagnosis. Every other option is available to you. You can even get drugs similar to benzos or other psych drugs (in this utopia all drugs and substances are legal for consenting adults), but you have to pay for them, and they don’t cost a lot. Let’s say they cost a few dollars per pill (the street cost of most of them now, though it could be far lower). You are choosing to take them, if you do, over the glass of vodka, the joint of marijuana, the herbal supplement, the community acupuncture, the hug, whatever. Or you are taking them in addition to one or many of these things. You’re treating yourself as a respectable adult and making a conscious choice. You are viewing all of the substances and practices or “treatments,” if you will, as equal before god. None are intrinsically more or less “medicine” in the eyes of the law or in terms of resources sponsored by social services. If anything, benign or nourishing, life giving treatments are funded by social services.
So, let’s say you opted to buy a benzo for a few dollars. You take it, it calms you down, you assess what’s going on from a less panicked place. Maybe you decide it’s worth the investment to take benzos everyday and you become addicted, but just like a cigarette smoker or alcoholic, or soda drinker for that matter, you pay for your intake based on how much you use (plus tax). You are still harming your body and the ecosystem to some degree, and you may argue (and perhaps rightly so) this is harm reduction, keeping you alive until you can find a less harmful way. And maybe you will save the ecosystem someday, or have an important role in it, so it is important to keep you alive. Or maybe staying alive is intrinsically better than dying. In any case, mental illness has not been mentioned yet. And the reason? We are in an imaginary world where there are no psychiatric drugs prescribed as medicine.
The other thing to consider is what sorts of things would not be taking place in this post-psychiatry utopia of sorts. Polypharmacy, for one, would taper or cease to exist. Anyone taking multiple psych drugs in this imaginary reality would be seen as having a problem, similar to a person in our current culture who uses 3 different types of synthetic street drugs on a daily basis, even in small to moderate doses, or who uses several different forms of one each day.
There would also be far far far less people taking psych drugs for daily “maintenance” of mood or with hopes and illusions of drug induced emotional stability with a hefty price tag of good health. Why? Because these drugs would not be labeled medicine, therefore few people would go beyond the initial week or two of delirium. Psych drugs meant for daily use (excluding stimulants and sleeping pills) don’t “work” right away the way benzos do. Benzos, like opiates, are designed to be a quick emergency fix of relief. Other psych drugs like SSRIs, neuroleptics, and anticonvulsant drugs start off with a week or two of making the substance user feel disoriented, sick, confused and nauseous in many cases. Few people would bother to take them beyond that trial period (or at all) without a doctor coaching them along. People take stimulants, benzos, sleeping pills and opiates recreationally and/or addictively, but other classes of drugs give no immediate good feeling or relief beyond the placebo effect.
Doctors routinely execute the placebo effect and encourage their patients to wait out the first few weeks. They give their clients hope by saying, “The drugs take a little while to work.” All of this is very well supported by a system that covers or highly subsidizes doctors visits and drugs under the heading of medical need. If someone were to try to sell you a drug that would take a few weeks before possibly making you feel happier, would make you feel bad first, had lots of side effects and health risks and had not been shown to work better than placebo, AND you had to pay a few dollars per day for a months supply to start out, would you try it? It just sounds like a scam.
Without the dishonest medical validation of drug use for a non-medical situation that has never been shown to have a biological basis that can be diagnosed, treated, cured, or prevented (despite FDA approval) with any medical procedure, people would not become psychiatric patients for life.
We may become substance abusers or drugs addicts, and many of us currently are. These issues would surely need to be addressed, as would, of course, the needs of the millions of psychiatric substance users who already exist and whose substances are called medicine to treat a mental illness because a doctor diagnosed them based on unproven theory and speculation.
Medicine is not the track. It’s not Vegas. It’s not, and should not be, a cheap scratch card. Millions of lives are being gambled on with these unproven theories. The drugs we are gambling with cause violent behavior, suicides, diabetes, early death, obesity, birth defects and so much more. For those fully covered by insurance, they can be cheaper than a lottery ticket, cheaper than a game of poker. What will it take to remind the American public (and other countries Western Psychiatry has infiltrated) these are not safe substances, these are not medical necessities?
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.