If you looked at photos of Luke Montagu in the grounds of Mapperton, his stunning ancestral manor, you might well envy his lot. Look closer and you’ll sense that his story has not always been one of wine and roses, for the next Lord Sandwich has spent most of the last seven years in hell, thanks to the interventions of drug-obsessed psychiatrists. Yet, though his experience was heartbreaking, often terrifying, it is now becoming a story full of hope and resilience, of grace and grit, for he has co-founded the Council for Evidence-based Psychiatry as his contribution to the information war on the false or misleading claims made about the benefits of psychotropic drugs.
The other main focus of Montagu’s relentless work is the gathering of psychiatric drug-survival stories, but I think that the impact of non-survival stories could be equally powerful. Consider the case of little Rebecca Riley: on Dec. 13, 2006, police found a little four-year-old girl lying dead on the floor next to her parents’ bed, her lungs filled with fluid. The autopsy revealed that she had died from an overdose of psychiatric drugs designed to tame “an impossible child.” The U.S., unlike us, has targeted millions of children with a series of concerted campaigns to increase, exponentially, the rate of bipolar diagnosis, aided and abetted by a Big Pharma-backed Harvard psychiatrist, Prof. J. Biederman, who is still revered and honoured by the American medical establishment. Rebecca had been treated for bipolar disorder, formerly called manic depression, since she was barely able to speak. Now this may seem unusual, but in the States it’s not. Even in 2006, it was estimated that there were nearly one million U.S. children diagnosed as bipolar, with drugs being the first-line treatment. Would a cascade of stories like Rebecca’s not bring us all out onto the streets in grief and rage, demanding immediate, zero-tolerance regulation?
As a young student, Montagu had a bad reaction to a sinus operation and fell into the care of a British biomedical GP, who prescribed the antidepressant Prozac for a depression he hadn’t got! This was just the first slide down a very slippery slope as, like so many hopefuls, he was lured into Prozac by a doctor who had fallen for the early hype. Now this was the drug that promised a life-change, happiness and a new, designer personality. What it did produce, however, was so many thousands of adverse effects in the U.S. within three years of its apparition that the FDA was forced to hold a major hearing, whose very negative findings were shamefully glossed over by a majority on the jury who were in the pay of Big Pharma. And, yet, its popularity grew and grew, despite the fact that in its first ten years of life there were 39,000 adverse reports about it sent to Medwatch. What price a victory for health, ethics and science over brilliant marketing? One is forced here to ask where the real madness lies.
Montagu then ”progressed” to a series of other SSRIs, and then to a cosy little cocktail of other drugs: biomedical psychiatry (BMP) has no qualms about using its patients as guinea pigs for casual drug experiments, in the vague hope that something might “work”. Unfortunately, however, BMP isn’t interested in persons, but in symptoms, so when interpreting psychiatric and Big Pharma research you need to go into sleuth mode and examine very carefully the outcomes section to see what this actually means: it usually means the short-term relief of a few, among many, symptoms and the emotional dumbing-down of its victims, with scant attention being paid to their personal growth and quality of life. Live, horse, and you’ll get poison.
At a later stage, Effexor became Montagu’s next Big White Hope, another miracle drug that promised to sort him out, but which wired him to the moon. To counter this, clonazepam was then summoned to the front, but instead of helping him to sleep, it made him forgetful. Like so many millions of hopeful, gullible, depressed patients, he, too, was seduced by his doctors into swallowing a story that has been completely discredited since the early 90s: the chemical imbalance hypothesis, or “theory”, which was used to justify his multiple antidepressant prescriptions.
Over the years, Montagu tried several times to come off his drugs, but was soon shepherded back onto them by doctors who believed, or said they believed, that it was the return of his “illness”, and not the classic withdrawal symptoms. I was puzzled by the fact that he stayed on these drugs for 20 years, even though there was nothing ”wrong” with him and he was functioning well at work and in relationships, though he did say he wasn’t 100%. Might his persistence have been due to the sheer power of Big Pharma marketing? Might his various withdrawal attempts have been driven by a deep, but unconscious intuition that he was slowly losing his freedom, himself and his vitality through addiction? Whatever the reason, what frightens me is that SSRIs can have such a long-lasting, toxic grip on someone who was perfectly normal, and who didn’t need them; but when we witness daily the ease with which medics prescribe drugs so promiscuously, my astonishment is probably very naïve, indeed. (Only a fortnight ago, I came across three people prescribed Prozac, Xanax and Zoloft for post-operative discomfort, fear of flying and a romantic break-up, respectively!)
“No, the SSRIs did not help me during all those years, and simply led to more drugs, the totality of which has greatly harmed me. I was put on an SSRI following a bad reaction to an operation and kept on for years through repeat prescriptions; in 2003 I tried to come off, went into severe withdrawal and was then given four new drugs. I decided to come off because I was getting sleepy and forgetful, and felt the benzo wasn’t good to take long term. But after the detox I educated myself and realised the whole thing was a tragic scam.”
Peter Breggin has often highlighted the addictive nature of most psychotropic drugs, and his book on withdrawal is invaluable in alerting us to the precise dangers posed by them to health, life and sanity. He would not be at all surprised to learn that Montagu’s attempts to extricate himself from his drugs led to the discovery that, in effect, he had become addicted, trapped like a demented butterfly in the bell-jar of psychiatric ignorance, incompetence or complicity with Big Pharma. Each time, he was duly offered the standard, but mindless, knee–jerk response of biomedical psychiatrists when he experienced horrible withdrawal effects: ”Yes, it’s just the return of your ‘psychiatric disorder’; proof positive that you desperately need these drugs for life.” I cannot see why in our present state of knowledge any doctor peddling this standard ploy should not be considered culpably ignorant and guilty of highly unethical behaviour. Should it not now be declared a crime by every responsible government?
The turning-point for Montagu came when he went to The Priory, and was immediately taken off his sleeping pills, which he’d been on for years. Little wonder he is so motivated to highlight withdrawal issues, for in no time this move had disastrous consequences: a fried brain and a tsunami of horrific symptoms. He fled The Priory in terror and disarray, which soon became what Barthes called disreality. However, making the decision to discharge himself was the easy bit, as he now had to face the cataclysmic withdrawal effects, and the loss of any sense of self. Later, in a state of very fragile selfhood, he took a court action against his doctor, whose incredible incompetence cost him £1.35 million, but all the forces of traditional psychiatry were here summoned against Montagu in a frightening, Kafkaesque process.
During his seven-year withdrawal period, Luke Montagu, like Hamlet, soon lost all his mirth, his appreciation of nature and his desire for social contact; and, like Hamlet, he ended up having to play at being himself. This, tragically, is the fate of so many unwitting SSRI victims like him who were betrayed by trusted psychiatric ”experts”; bamboozled into accepting myriad diagnoses and drug switches (in his case, nine of them). This is what must inevitably happen if one is hellbent on conquering a “disease” that doesn’t exist. I think here of Chekhov, a wise, compassionate doctor with no illusions, who has Gaev reflect, in Cherry Orchard: “If there’s any illness for which people offer many remedies, you may be sure that particular illness is incurable.” (Guido Cerenetti once asked, provocatively:”Do you want to become a medical specialist? Then specialize, as did the most subtle Egyptians, in Unknown Illnesses.”)
The breaking–point came when Montagu finally collapsed in impotent tears at a meeting, so had to retire from his beloved work in film for three years. He described to me the terrible emptiness of those years when he became incapable of doing anything at all, except mooch around the house, longing for night to come came, with its promise of soothing sleep. “I couldn’t read or even watch TV, but just hung in there, waiting for the balm of sleep.” This was to be his Via Dolorosa, his long, arduous trek to complete withdrawal, with its awful somatic, psychological and social consequences: he lost several people close to him, who refused to believe that it was the drugs which were nearly destroying him. This is a terrible tribute to the power of Big Pharma marketing and to its psychiatric accomplices who have instilled in us the crazy, almost unshakeable, belief that SSRIs actually work, and do no harm, regardless of the of the numerous research studies showing the opposite. Plato warned us long ago about the danger posed to truth by the rhetoric of Sophists.
His desperation in those dark days is perhaps best captured by his mother, who has spoken of her own devastation, and that of three generations, at being engulfed by Luke’s distress: on several Christmasses she and his wife tried to hold him together as he shrieked “I want to die!” and lay howling in despair, unable to come downstairs.
With thousands of stories like that of Luke Montagu emerging from the silence, it is little wonder that the renowned British critical psychiatrist, Phil Thomas, should deem it necessary to write: “If the blimp that is psychiatric treatment were a passenger aircraft, the authorities would have grounded it many years ago, but still it continues to inflict harm on countless thousands of people. I read Joanna Moncrieff’s latest book with a growing sense of anger and shame. The roots of drug treatment in psychiatry are thoroughly rotten. They sustain the decaying trunk of psychiatric theory and practice through mis-representations and untruths; it is snake oil peddled by quackery.”
This is very much in line with the views of the great visionary Irish psychiatrist, Ivor Browne, who has this to say about our prescription drug culture: “Anything that removes anxiety will be potentially addictive,” echoing the repeated assertions of the world expert in the field, Peter Breggin. “The person experiencing difficulties must work to overcome the traumas they have suffered with the support of a therapist. Psychotherapy, when it’s effectively undertaken, is the only real therapy…Prozac and all other SSRIs are actually dangerous and in my opinion should never be used.”, says Browne, yet it is commonplace for people, even children, to be on an arsenal of such drugs. I met a young woman recently at a conference who told me she was on 13 different drugs for her depression, and then for the numerous side-effects of an expanding series of drugs designed to counter the toxic effects of the previous one.
She, wisely, had decided to get off her drugs, but, unwisely, had decided to manage her own withdrawal. And the very intelligent film star Brenda Fricker recently announced that she was on a winning cocktail of 23 drugs for her depression: her wonderful, heroic doctors had finally got the right combo that has changed her life, but, as Brecht said: ”Unhappy the land that needs heroes.” She, obviously, has bought the big Pharma story that this change was wrought by magic drugs and wizard doctors, but not by the powerful placebo effect, which, as we know from many recent studies, especially at Harvard, is crucial to physical and psychological healing. Complicit biomedical psychiatrists, and Big Pharma’s marketing campaigns, have successfully convinced most of the world that these are drug effects. “They would, wouldn’t they”, as Mandy Rice-Davies famously said of the British Establishment in the 60s.
After a long conversation with him on Saturday, I felt that Luke Montagu seemed very real, grounded, and hopeful as he makes his painful journey back to himself: “Recently”, he said, “I’ve started to feel like me again. I can think clearly and remember stuff. I still get a lot of physical pain, and cannot risk the pleasure of a pint or a glass of wine, which my body cannot metabolize.” And, for me, what is really frightening is that these after-effects are still affecting his body seven years later. But there’s not a sign here of a stiff upper lip, just a steely determination to draw on his quiet rage, if not his “saeva indignatio.” There are dark times when I feel that the druggie doxa is unassailable, but Montagu is up for the battle. Echoing Darwin and Huxley long ago, he said: “This is an information war that must be fought,” referring to the gap between what numerous impeccable studies show and actual psychiatric practice. But facts and science rarely win us over unaided by powerful, persuasive stories which seize our hearts and imaginations: this is why in 17th.C.France the same training manuals were used by both barristers and actors. I reckon that this war will have to be fought on several fronts, bearing in mind that where Huxley went for full-frontal scientific attack, Darwin knew that, since their views would undermine a powerful cultural doxa, obliquity and indirection, allied to the slow drip-drip of scientific research, would pave the way to victory. ”Tell it slant,” as Emily Dickinson advised around the same time. Perhaps, then, Montagu’s experience in film, plus his story initiative and an adroit exploitation of the social media, need to be drawn on to counter the Leviathan that is Big Pharma marketing.
Montagu is determined to highlight not only the toxic effects of psychotropic drugs, but the huge time-bomb of drug withdrawal, to which Peter Breggin has devoted a most terrifying and unsettling book, Psychiatric Drug Withdrawal (2013). How many biomedical psychiatrists have read Whitaker, Breggin, Thomas or Moncrieff? How many tell their patients the bad news? How many propose a planned withdrawal to their patients? And even if they do, Montagu is convinced that few medics are competent to oversee and titrate such withdrawal. I would like to know how many of them even see it as an issue. Appropriately supervised withdrawal for people on psychotropics for any length of time could be a matter of life and death – hence his question: “Where are the SSRI withdrawal centres?”
“Another thing I’d like to highlight is that there are no studies that show ANY benefits from long-term SSRI use.” I would add here that biomedical psychiatry will point to “good outcomes” in some studies, but here’s the rub: this often means that the patient has been rendered “manageable”, usually with severe emotional blunting. (See the Sansones’ 2010 article on SSRI-induced indifference.)
And we might pose here another awkward question to traditional psychiatrists: “Why do people diagnosed as mentally ill lose, on average, 17 years of precious life?” As many recent studies have shown, this is NOT due to their mental illnesses at all, as biomedical psychiatrists usually claim.
Luke Montagu is well on the way to transforming his painful experiences of bitter pills into a project that may greatly enhance the quality of life and health of future generations – and save the lives of millions. His Council for Evidence-based Psychiatry will soon be hosting what should be a consciousness-altering international conference on the epidemic of psychiatric drug use, entitled “More Harm than Good”. Although there are still a few places left for this landmark event, it is likely to be standing-room only as many sense already that it will mark a real turning-point in the fight against the promiscuous medicalization of everyday life, enabled by GPs and the psychiatric profession. It will take place in Roehampton University, London, on September 18, and will feature virtually every top name in the field, including Peter Breggin, Bob Whitaker, Jo Moncrieff, and the fiercely independent Cochrane researcher Peter Gøtzsche of the ‘Council for Evidence-based Psychiatry,’ one of the very rare people to have published in the Big Five medical journals.
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.