US Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales went berserk on March 11, 2012 and in the dark of night slaughtered 17 civilian Afghani men, women and children asleep in their villages. Asked how he could do such a terrible thing, Bales replied, “I’ve asked that question a million times, and there is not a good reason in the world for the horrible things I did.”
Bales’ lead defense attorney, John Henry Browne, reportedly confirmed that Sgt. Bales was given the anti-malarial drug mefloquine on an earlier deployment to Iraq; but Brown had no such evidence concerning the deadly 2012 deployment to Afghanistan.
What about the effect of Bales’ earlier exposure to mefloquine?
In December 2016, a lengthy case study of a former soldier treated for four months with mefloquine was published in Drug Safety—Case Reports. The case illustrated that mefloquine can cause persisting brain injury with unrelenting, permanent emotional and cognitive problems. As my fellow psychiatrists commonly do, they diagnosed the former soldier with psychiatric disorders, including PTSD, and they treated him with multiple psychiatric drugs, worsening his brain injury and overall mental and emotional condition.
According to the December report, “The patient and his wife noted increased emotional lability, typically manifesting as anger and irritability. He also endorsed difficulty concentrating, a decreased interest in most activities, persistent short-term memory problems and word-finding difficulties.” Long-term, he has needed help with anger management.
The soldier’s emotional distress—increased emotional lability, typically manifesting as anger and irritability; difficulty concentrating; a decreased interest in most activities; and persistent short-term memory problems and word-finding difficulties—can be caused by almost any psychiatric drug as an acute or long-lasting effect. Seeing the harm caused by mefloquine and other non-psychiatric drugs can help people to understand that it is the drugs, and not the individual’s so-called mental illness, that frequently ruins lives and causes harmful behaviors.
The specific drug-induced symptom of “decreased interest” is the effect that most commonly leads patients and those around them to think they are improved. People given psychiatric drugs, as I have shown in Medication Madness and other books and articles, frequently lose their concern for themselves and others, and for life in general. Many patients, families, therapists and prescribers mistake this disengagement for improvement; but it reflects a toxic injury to the brain resulting in the loss of higher, critical human functions related to motivation and love. Whether inflicted by lobotomy and electroshock or by endless numbers of psychiatric drugs, loss of interest or engagement is a common result of any widespread injury to the brain. Drug companies and psychiatrists view these injuries to the highest centers of the person’s brain as an “improvement.”
The indifference and apathy caused by injury to the brain from psychiatric interventions is a double-edged sword. Usually the reduction in caring and empathy makes people less engaged and more withdrawn, and seemingly less disturbed or disturbing. Yet empathy helps us recognize the suffering we inflict on others through impulsive actions and thereby helps to restrain us. Reducing empathy is one way that psychiatric drugs can lead to suicide and violence.
I recently published a book chapter for lawyers working with combat veterans in which I compare the impact of PTSD, traumatic brain injury from combat, and psychiatric drugs. All these traumas can produce loss of interest, as well as the broad range of symptoms that afflicted the soldier who took mefloquine. Mounting evidence that non-psychiatric drugs like mefloquine can cause severe psychiatric disorders, suicide and violence has a compelling aspect to it. That psychoactive drugs cause long-term brain changes that disrupt mental and emotional function should be no surprise. Antipsychotic drugs, stimulants, antidepressants, mood stabilizers, benzodiazepines and other sedatives and sleeping pills—there is strong evidence from brain scans, neuropsychological testing, and clinical evaluations that every class of psychiatric drug causes irreversible damage to the brain, especially with exposures lasting months and years.
From PTSD to psychiatric drugs, a shared effect of all forms of psychological and physical trauma is to cause disinterest and disengagement. This key observation helps to explain why psychiatry throughout its history has resorted to all forms of trauma in the name of treatment. It is time to face the truth that psychiatric treatments work by damaging our brains sufficiently to take the edge off our humanity—by making us less caring and engaged with our lives.
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.