Middle School Invasion: When the Pharmaceutical Companies Come to Town

Sera Davidow
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On January 7, 2016 my newly 13-year-old son (he helped me fashion the title for this blog!) brought home two permission slips from the middle school where he is currently (hopefully) making his way through the 7th grade. One of the slips was for a class trip to the Bronx Zoo. Okay, fine. However, the other asked me to give my okay for him to participate in a “Signs of Suicide” (SOS) curriculum and the perhaps-too-honestly-named ‘Brief Screening for Adolescent Depression’ (BSAD) that accompanies it. (Does no one else see the perverse humor in a depression screener that seems to actually be encouraging those screened to “be sad”?)

Yeah, not happening.

The attached letter from the principal explains the goals of the program as follows:

  • Help students understand that depression is treatable and assess whether or not they may have some symptoms of depression
  • To explain that suicide is a preventable tragedy that often occurs as a result of untreated depression
  • To train students in identifying serious depression and potential suicidality in themselves or friends
  • To impress upon teens they can help themselves or a friend by taking the simple step of talking to a responsible adult about their concerns

The letter concludes with the following statement: “Although we encourage you to permit your child to participate in this important and effective suicide prevention program, it is completely your decision.”

Yes, thanks for that acknowledgement of my parental decision making powers. But, what of all the other parents who simply won’t have enough information to give truly informed consent? How will they know to question the Principal’s assertion that this program is “important and effective”? And shouldn’t we be in a position to collectively demand higher ethical standards from the school itself?

Because, make no mistake, this is an ethical issue. SOS exists under the umbrella of Screening for Mental Health, Inc (SMH), a non-profit founded by Douglas Jacobs. So, let’s just start at the beginning and see what ethical issues arise along the way. (Any predictions?)

Douglas Jacobs (who remains as the organization’s Medical Director) has a long and well-established history with pharmaceutical companies. In the book ‘Our Daily Meds’ by Melody Petersen, his long-term consultation to pharmaceutical companies was noted, but that’s not the only source documenting such ties. In fact, it would appear that Jacobs has not only longstanding relationships to both McNeil and Pfizer, but to almost every other pharmaceutical company under the sun in one way or another.

For example, in a 2014 article published on davisvanguard.com, it was estimated that (at least at that time) about 75% of Jacobs’ income typically came from paid court appearances. Paid by whom, you might ask? Pharmaceutical companies? How did you know!? Yes, it would appear that Jacobs regularly accepts funds to testify as an ‘expert witness’ on behalf of various drug companies. This includes Roche who apparently paid him in between $30,000 and $40,000 in 1998 alone.

Meanwhile, drug companies are the ominous shadow that lurks behind (or sometimes out in front of) just about eli lilly pictureevery initiative that Jacobs heads. Back in the early nineties, Jacobs founded the ‘National Depression Screening Day’, which, at one point, reportedly took 70 to 80% of its backing from pharmaceuticals. Once the singularly focused screening day initiative blossomed into the more diversely focused SMH, his connections followed in force. (See, for example, the image to the right picturing Jacobs himself with a giant check for $500,000 from Eli Lilly.)

In 2006, even a New Zealand-based publication, Scoop, took note, and focused in not only on SMH, but on SOS in particular.  Here’s a direct quote:

“SOS claims it is the creation of the “nonprofit” Massachusetts-based corporation, Screening for Mental Health, Inc (SMH). However, as it turns out, the development of the firm’s screening programs, was funded with millions of dollars from Big Pharma.”

And that brings us back to where we started: SOS. Although in the aforementioned book, ‘Our Daily Meds’, Peteresen points out “In 2004… a panel of experts brought together by the federal government warned that there was a lack of evidence that such screenings decreased suicide attempts or actually helped more than hurt them,” the program’s parent organization continues to claim that their “primary goal is to find and help people who may be on the verge of committing suicide.” Meanwhile, the same source also points out that “careful inspection” of the organization’s website reveals backing from five different pharmaceutical companies, all of which market so-called antidepressants. (Unfortunately, they seem to have ‘cleaned up’ their site a bit in recent times, and so that reality is substantially harder to uncover.)

Sigh.

Yesterday (January 15th, 2016), I went to the school to meet with their “adjustment counselor” who consented to my getting an advanced screening of the SOS video intended for middle school audiences. Here’s what I found:

  • Within the first two minutes of the film, the child lead exclaimed, “Did you know that most people who kill themselves have depression?” (Oh, the tautological trap of, “He killed himself because he’s mentally ill because he killed himself! But more on that another time…)
  • Moments later, a group of middle schoolers discussing their supposed friends ‘with depression’ make comments such as that their friend’s behavior is “kinda scary,” and one child says, “This boy that I knew, he was really nice but then he started breaking all the rules…” (Reminds me of Bruce Levine’s ‘Why Anti-Authoritarians are Diagnosed as Mentally Ill’)
  • While no one used the phrase “chemical imbalance”, the ‘expert’ in the film (a guidance counselor) did suggest that one reason kids get depressed is a “chemical piece in your brain.” (I guess she was aiming to perpetuate this particular myth in more accessible, ‘kid friendly’ terms?)
  • Although no one uses the NAMI-popularized line of depression being “just like diabetes,” the ‘expert’ does offer that it’s “like any other illness you’d see your doctor for.” (Again, making it kid friendly… Maybe middle-schoolers aren’t so familiar with Diabetes?)
  • The ‘expert’ also repeatedly states that being depressed is a “serious illness,” and adds in that it is one for which you should “get treatment…right away before it gets worse.” (Is this a horror film? Are we talking about Ebola?)
  • While medication is not the only ‘treatment’ mentioned (therapy is given a cursory nod), it is suggested on more than one occasion including a notation that one of the reasons alcohol and drugs are dangerous is because they can “interfere with the medication you may be taking.”

So, yes, this film is essentially an advertisement for ‘going to get treatment’. And, in our current world, this of course generally means getting a diagnosis and a ‘happy pill’ prescription (or two).

This all brings me back a bit. Perhaps one of my most powerful Internet finds was one I shared in my blog, “Dear NAMI, Apologies. I’ve Been Unfair,” back in May of 2014. The find was a 2004 article written by Pharmaceutical Executive Josh Weinstein called, “Public Relations: Why Advocacy Beats DTC.” A particular excerpt bears re-sharing here:

“DTC promotions result in excesses in spending, awareness overkill, mistargeted messages, and an overall negative image for our industry . . . DTC promotion regulations obligate advertisers to frighten the public with laundry lists of side effects… As a veteran pharma marketer, I have witnessed that the most direct and efficient tool for driving long-term support for brands has been, and continues to be, a well-designed, advocacy-based public education program . . . working with advocacy groups is one of the most accomplished means of raising disease awareness and enhancing the industry’s image as deliverer of new and tangible value to patients. Often this advocacy work is unbranded, stimulating consumers to ask doctors about their symptoms. Then, companies can compete by promoting their brands to physicians.”

While the connection to SOS is slightly less obvious than the one to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the same principles are at play: It’s less useful to explicitly push people toward psychiatric drugs than it is to simply convince them their sick and that they need to go to the doctor who will then push the pills on the pharmaceutical’s behalf. Big Pharma (clearly) know this. (Hell, they’re posting about it where anyone can see!) So, why aren’t more of the rest of us conscious of this obvious truth?

Meanwhile, here’s what didn’t show up in the SOS kiddie marketing tool:

  • Involvement in the mental health system as a child appears to increase the likelihood that one will enter adulthood also in the mental health system.
  • The ‘chemical imbalance’ theory has been thoroughly debunked, and there’s no conclusive evidence to suggest that ‘depression’ is biological in its roots.
  • Treatment outcomes related to medication (particularly long-term) are pretty dismal, and there’s research to suggest that activities like increased exercise are at least as effective (without all the risks).
  • Speaking of risks, antidepressants are now understood to sometimes play a role in eliciting violence toward one’s self (i.e., suicide) and/or others, particularly in children. (Hence that pesky black box warning added in 2004.)

And so on.

After watching the video, I asked the adjustment counselor, “Why do you think pharmaceuticals would fund something like this?” She responded vaguely that pharmaceutical companies “have their hands in everything these days.” But, in fact, they don’t. They have “their hands” in those things that they believe will benefit them either directly or indirectly by creating (or preserving) ‘customers’.

I understand the effort to find a way to support kids who are struggling. I also understand the effort to make space for kids who are struggling in isolation to come forward and talk about what’s going on. But isn’t there a way for that to happen that doesn’t also attempt to turn them into psychiatric patients or the newest drug company customers? Aren’t our schools (or someone) able to put together a program that supports kids to call out bullying, recognize when their friend seems to be having a hard time, and ask for help without making it an illness issue?

Frankly, it strikes me as flatly unethical for our schools to participate in the dissemination of such marketing tools, especially without full disclosure (and especially given that what’s being sold can have hugely detrimental and sometimes deadly effects).

In truth, I think most school officials are probably acting out of ignorance on this matter. They aren’t the ones who came up with the idea that SOS (and other programs like it) are “important and effective”. They were sold that message, right along with the rest of us.

The real test comes when people begin stepping forward to disabuse them of such notions. Do they take the time to listen and learn? Do they make a change? Or do they proceed with their blinders on?

Time will tell, but in the meantime, our kids’ lives are on the line.

46 COMMENTS

  1. there must be a name for this sort of thing.

    Astroturfing, greenwashing, pinkwashing are all terms for corporates using money to garner a good public image to distract from their dubious morals and this is what is happening here, as well as garnering new customers. Not sure what the term would be though and non of the ones I have seem suitable.

  2. In addition to the misinformation and propaganda promulgated by these Big Pharma screening tools, one of my biggest concerns is the issue of “medical neglect.” In my state as in many others, parents who refuse to follow their child’s school’s advice and have their child evaluated for a “suspected” mental health problem can lose custody of their child due to “medical neglect.” I have seen this happen several times and it is beyond wrong and extremely heartbreaking.

    It’s also important to realize that any time one of these screening tools or a “professional” evaluator determines that your child needs ‘treatment’ (ie: drugs) for an emotional difficulty that parents who do not follow this ‘professional advice’ are also at risk of being charged with medical neglect. Parents should be really careful when either agreeing to these pharmaceutically pushed screenings and/or to agreeing to any professional evaluation for your child. It’s critically important to find a professional, (if you ever feel you need one to advocate for services for your child or for any other reason) that supports a non-medicalized response to childhood difficulties.

    This whole situation is extremely concerning. Thank you Sera for a comprehensive discussion of a critically important topic!

    • I did see this happen once in my role as an advocate for foster kids. Two divorced black parents of clearly educated backgrounds had their kid at a special school that recommended stimulants for “ADHD.” The parents listened, researched and then refused to agree. They were brought into court on allegations of neglect, and the child welfare agency was asking to have the child removed to foster care! Fortunately, the judge saw reason and dismissed the petition out of hand, which gave me some reassurance that here, at least, the judges are not so easily convinced that a parent loses their right to make medical decision because a school said they should do something different. But I’m not sure it’s like that everywhere in this country. The whole thing seemed completely absurd to me, but apparently not to the social services worker. Kind of scary!

      —- Steve

  3. Hi Sera,

    Thanks so much for exposing this. This is truly appalling–on the level of the Big Pharma’s direct hand in this. And also on the level of othering kids who may be suffering:

    “Moments later, a group of middle schoolers discussing their supposed friends ‘with depression’ make comments such as that their friend’s behavior is “kinda scary,””

    I was also distressed by the “illness” propaganda delivered to kids at such a young age. I know kids are regularly being channelled into one “disorder” or another these days, and this is awful.

    As you point out, why not reach out to kids in a real way?–“and ask for help without making it an illness issue?” It was hard enough for me to fight against the “illness” model as an adult. I don’t know how kids are supposed to fly in the face of all this brainwashing so early on–and come to their own authentic terms…..

    Thanks for being a powerful voice in the struggle against oppression.

    Best wishes,
    Elizabeth

  4. Thank you, Sera, for pointing this out. And it is heartbreaking that this type of “teen screen” program is actually in our schools. I completely agree it is, “flatly unethical for our schools to participate in the dissemination of such marketing tools, especially without full disclosure (and especially given that what’s being sold can have hugely detrimental and sometimes deadly effects).”

    I’ve talked with teachers about the problems with the drugs, and the teachers I’ve spoken with for the most part seem to be at wits end, due to too large classrooms, and other ridiculous rules. Drugging the children is really the only option they are being given to address problematic children in the classroom today. I think this is a big part of the problem. And I’m not actually a supporter of corporal punishment, but a slap on the wrist does at lot less long term damage to a child, than putting children on mind altering / damaging drugs for life.

    Thanks for speaking out, and like you, my children have been forwarded of the dangers of psychiatric drugs. Teach your children well.

  5. This is all too sinister for me to handle all at once, I might have to read this in sections.

    Does no one else see the perverse humor in a depression screener that seems to actually be encouraging those screened to “be sad”?)

    Except that it’s hardly unintentional, hence humorous; it’s programming. What were the other acronyms, I forget — was it SMH for Snitching on My Homies under the auspices of Save Our System (SOS)?

    Help students understand that depression is treatable and assess whether or not they may have some symptoms of depression/To explain that suicide is a preventable tragedy that often occurs as a result of untreated depression/To train students in identifying serious depression and potential suicidality in themselves or friends/To impress upon teens they can help themselves or a friend by taking the simple step of talking to a responsible adult about their concerns

    Nothing like the power of negative suggestion, huh?

    Pharmaceutical fingerprints are so all over this, it’s SOSAD. If we had a significant group of lawyers trained to advocate for and defend us in the ways we determine fit our actual needs, and not those projected by others, there would be high-publicity court cases challenging the marketing of unproven, unscientific declarations to children, or anyone. And kids who need support will stay away even from legitimate counseling for fear of maybe being labeled nutty and put on drugs. (I believe however that pharmaceutical p.r. people may underestimate the ability of young people today to see through their machinations. I hope so.)

  6. We should have a basic info kit for parents, including easy-to-understand deconstructions of the medical model, basic info on myth vs. facts pertaining to drugs and their effects, and the false arguments used to promote them. Maybe with a little added political education about why they haven’t heard any of this before. But yeah, you don’t want your son becoming a target. Those in the grip of totalitarian ideologies are often fiercely resistant to their worldviews being challenged.

    the program’s parent organization continues to claim that their “primary goal is to find and help people who may be on the verge of committing suicide.”

    One step towards this would be to track down everyone who has been prescribed antidepressants and offer them help in detoxing. Another would be to eliminate capitalism and its concomitant trauma, violence and alienation.

    • Yes, unregulated capitalism is at the root of this. Corporations designed to make a profit above all else, willing and able to compromise public safety, honesty and all integrity to increase their bottom line for stockholders. Unfortunately, until we get corporate money and political action committees out of our electoral and governing process, we will see more (and even more) of the same. We have a rare opportunity to take a position on this very topic in the current presidential election.

  7. hi, sera. awful, but not surprising.

    my history in one sentence- hub fell for the psych drug scam for about 10 years and kind of/nearly destroyed our family. i’m fighting back.

    here is my similar,last week’s experience. i brought my 12-year-old daughter to the pediatrician for a physical pain in her side. same pediatricians i’ve been using for nearly 20 years. there has been for a couple of years a tablet to fill out in the waiting room- symptoms, insurance, co pay, etc. the tablet this time had new screens: ONE screen asking my daughter about her physical, medical symptoms and about 8-10!! screens asking about her thoughts and behaviors- feelings of self-worth, sadness, loneliness, acting out, etc. i was livid and knew instantly that the new tablet sponsor was either merck or eli liy or another criminal enterprise.

    keep revealing the scam to anyone who will listen- and to those who refuse to listen as well. who knows how many lives we who speak the truth might be saving…

    all the best

    erin

  8. Thank you for this post, Sera. We need much more attention paid to these kinds of intrusive maneuvers on the part of Big Pharma and the feds into our nation’s educational system. They want to sell psychiatric drugs, and with them psychiatric diagnoses, to children through their parents. Selling drugs and diagnoses through mental health screenings is seen as preventative. It is anything but preventative. You’ve illustrated how the sins of the parents are being visited on their children in a most sinister fashion here. Children are innocent, in the main, and a few of the things they don’t need for their future are drug dependence, psychiatric labels, and treatment plans. Let’s get our schools back into the business of education, and out of the business of behavior monitoring and surveillance, that is, information gathering and spying. The best way not to have a problem adult in the future is not to have a problem child in the present. Starting them down the career mental patient path, this early in their lives, is not conducive, when they could be learning how to become contributing members of society, to good outcomes in the long run. There are better classroom subjects than Depression 101, in other words, and it is those other subjects to which the education system should be attending.

  9. The real test comes when people begin stepping forward to disabuse them of such notions. Do they take the time to listen and learn? Do they make a change? Or do they proceed with their blinders on?

    I guess we’re about to find out. And those provided with the necessary info should be politely reminded that their receipt of such has been noted. (You might have posed a fourth possibility: Do they go on the attack?)

    The ‘chemical imbalance’ theory has been thoroughly debunked, and there’s no conclusive evidence to suggest that ‘depression’ is biological in its roots.

    Again, we need to have a brief-as-possible but understandable and documented set of talking points about this. We know what we’re talking about but without clear documentation people will dismiss us as talking off the tops of our heads.

    At this point it might be worth considering strategies to defuse and expose E.F. Torrey. He seems to be the first person the system goes to when it wants to spread lies over the mass media. I believe at this point he can be isolated and defined as “rogue,” simply by taking his most outrageous statements and asking the Liebermans et al. if they would put their own names down as supporting him. Right now it seems Torrey is the “Trump” of the psychiatric establishment; both need to be brought down to size in the public eye.

    • Ok. I’m not saying that all people who end up in school administration are bad people. And I can only base my observation that I’m going to make on my own fifteen years experience of teaching. What I will say is this; you usually don’t get tapped to become an administrator unless you are pretty status quo. Like so many other groups and organizations, school administrations don’t seem to embrace avant guarde (sp) thinkers who are innovators who like to try new things. They seem to prefer the “plodders” who will not raise any controversy or cause any problems. They want people who adhere strictly to the rules and regulations with very little extra added in.

      So, what I’m saying is that I think Sera is correct when she says that she thinks that the “blinders” as usual will win out. The administrators are not going to do a lot of critical thinking about this since they come from the general population of this society and you don’t see many people questioning anything that comes from the drug companies and psychiatry. They will plod right along, supporting this because they’ve been told by the supposed “experts” that it’s a good thing for the students and for their schools. This doesn’t mean that they’re bad people, they just don’t see a broader picture, for the most part. There are some really dynamic administrators here and their but for the most part they are far and few between. And again, this is gleaned from my experience and doesn’t mean that it’s the gospel truth. It’s my observation and I own it.

  10. CCHR had a campaign for schools which was basically a Just Say No to Drugs campaign but they included Ritalin and Adderall on the list of drugs kids should say No to. It was good enough to get our Mayor involved in supporting it. But some representative of NAMI or mainstream psychiatry got to the schools and they discontinued it. Very clever of CCHR.

  11. Long into the era of screening students for depression I wonder if any studies have been done to support the effectiveness of screening. Specifically, what is the nature, timing, and extent of the treatment adolescents screened positive receive and what are the short and long term outcomes.

    After all, in a system where the usual treatment for depression is typically marginal at best and outcomes can be quite poor does screening result in little more then the burden a label can ensure?

    • Joe

      Well, it certainly assures more money for the drug companies and for psychiatrists since I bet that, low and behold, a majority of students that get screened turn out to be depressed! Go figure! This is just one more tool to spread the net wider to catch more people who can be labeled and caught in the system.

  12. Thanks so much for this article, Sera!

    I can’t help but think that this SOS curriculum is an attempt to lead the way into an “indoctrination into the fold,” so to speak, by big pharma. It’s chilling, to say the least.

    I used to work at a middle school in the office. Were kids upset? Yes. Were their hormones raging? Yes. Did some get in trouble much more than others? Yes. Were emotions out of control at times? Yes. Did kids get depressed at times? Yes. These used to be known as normal emotions during pre-puberty and puberty, and for the more difficult students, parents getting together with counselors and teachers to work on good strategies was used frequently to help solve problems.

    Now it seems as if big pharma is taking advantage of this period of time in a child’s life to start developing the idea that these pre-puberty/puberty emotions are NOT normal and need to be “quieted” with pills.

    The younger, the better to indoctrinate into the muddy, slimy world of pills that will be difficult to get off of once started, not to mention being labeled in medical records for years afterward or for life. Many parents, wanting the best for their children, are likely to follow whatever is suggested by the SOS curriculum UNLESS they understand the bottom-line message.

    I feel for the parents who don’t understand that this is what is happening. Fortunately, Sera, you DO understand the underlying message. I just wish that parents would see what is truly at stake here.

  13. To the principal: What about the parents who don’t understand that what they’re getting into could be very risky for their child and for the family in general and could impact both child and family for years?

    There are all kinds of pitfalls here. Those of us who understand the dangers of pharma pills look at this with a much closer lens and see this in an entirely different – and I would say very realistic – light.

  14. No, most schools are acting this manner for two reasons:

    1.) Medicated children are compliant children.
    2.) Chances are, most of the faculty & staff are taking psych meds.

    My sister in law is a teacher at a nationally recognized school for outstanding achievement & she’s the ONLY employee who isn’t on antidepressants. Educators totally believe in the medicated ’cause’. It was my son’s elementary school principal who convinced me to medicate my son in second grade. It was my husband’s physician who convinced him to take antidepressants for anxiety. Oddly enough, neither of them were available when our world fell apart.

    My kids are in high school now, a private one, and much like public school 80% of students are medicated. I assume the same is true for the staff.