The “Shotgun Method” – A Story of Mental Health Crisis in Iceland

Svava Arnardóttir
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What’s it like to deal with mental health challenges in Iceland? What about if you’re a young person in crisis? What on earth is the “shotgun method”?

My name is Svava Arnardóttir and I want to tell you about my personal experience with the Icelandic mental health system. I am not here to tell you to stop taking psychiatric medication if you don’t want to. I simply want us all to be informed consumers — to have the power to make decisions and choose between many different choices. I ask you to keep an open mind and open ears.

Here is the list of psychiatric medications that I was prescribed, bought and ate for a five year period. I was 17 when I started, and 22 when I got out.

  1. Zoloft
  2. Rivotril
  3. Sertral
  4. Amilin
  5. Seroquel
  6. Efexor
  7. Cipralex
  8. Lyrica
  9. Fontex
  10. Sobril
  11. Stesolid
  12. Stilnoct
  13. Lexotan
  14. Fluoxetin
  15. Phenergan
  16. Wellbutrin

I was 17 in 2005. I was in junior college, had been fully committed to sports and was an overachiever in school. I started having difficulty catching my breath when working out, and sometimes in school. I thought I had exertion asthma but hadn’t gone to the doctor. Then one evening, I was at home with my family watching TV. I meant to be relaxing after a long day but instead I couldn’t breathe. It felt like I was choking. I couldn’t get oxygen. I ended up being taken to the ER — where it turned out I wasn’t dying, there was nothing wrong with my body, it was all in my head! I had had a severe panic attack. I went to my doctor and was prescribed my first psychiatric medication. I was told I had a chemical imbalance in my brain. I was told that I would never recover, but by taking the medication, I could hope to feel a little better. I completely bought into this idea of brain chemistry. I was an obedient, good patient — did everything my doctor told me.

Turns out the medicine didn’t work well for me. I continued feeling worse and worse. Their response was to give me more medication and to try other brands and types. Still I continued feeling worse. Then we increased the dosage. Then we added other medication. We took some out, we added a few more in. I had all sorts of side effects. I got migraines and horrible, lifelike nightmares. My short term memory was giving out. I had difficulty concentrating. My mouth made so little saliva that my enamel was wearing out and I had to get extensive dental work. I had never gotten tooth decay before in my life! My eyesight changed rapidly, from -3 to -4, -5, -6. My ophthalmologist looked at my medication and immediately wanted me off three of them — they were all known to have side effects changing the structure of the actual eye! I was a changed person, a shell of my former self. I so sincerely wanted help and I tried everything that was suggested.

I went in total agony to a psychiatrist and begged for help. I was on a lot of medication and nothing seemed to work. He decided to add a few new ones to the mix — all at once — in the hopes of something working. He actually said, and I quote, “Let’s try the shotgun method” — meaning that you load the gun with a bunch of pellets and hope that one of them hits the target.

I ended up in the mental hospital. The focus there was still only on medicine. I wasn’t pointed towards what ended up saving my life. I simply found some fliers for different community-based services lying around, and booked introduction visits by my own initiative. I was always seeking help and trying for a better life.

I found the keys to my recovery through the work at an NGO called Hugarafl (Mindpower in English). They base their work on empowerment, recovery and equality. At Mindpower I was told there was still hope. People believed in me and believed that I could recover, even when I had no hope. I found my voice, and I started feeling empowered, finding that I could make a difference. I had been through 16 different psychiatric medications in five years, and they were not the right choice for me. Some might have helped, for a short while, like a bandaid or a crutch, but they didn’t fix the underlying causes.

My experience of the Icelandic mental health system is recent. And it is real. I went to a doctor at age 17 and asked for help in any way possible. I was anxious, I was depressed, I had panic attacks. I got a lot of medicine — and very little else.

Let’s put this into a context we can all easily relate to. Imagine that you go to a doctor because your knee hurts. The doctor looks at the knee, bends it a little, confirms the pain, and then gives you a prescription for ibuprofen and paracetamol with codeine. He tells you that this pain is here to stay, but by taking these pills three times a day for the rest of your life, you might feel a little better.

We would never, ever, accept this sort of health system. Why should it be different for mental health?

In real life, the doctor would maybe prescribe you some ibuprofen to take down the inflammation for now — but he would do a lot more. He would tell you to go to the physiotherapist. He would tell you about a bandage around the knee. Maybe a different way of standing, or a different insole for your shoes. Maybe he’d suggest changing sports, from jumping around in basketball to practising yoga.

This is the same for mental health. There are many ways to treat mental health challenges, and many ways to work on our mental health. There are so many options out there that you can choose from. You might like cognitive behavioural therapy, or acceptance commitment therapy. You might want to look into eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy. Or mindfulness. Relaxation. Imagery. Working with the family. Working on past experiences and traumas. Yoga. Exercise in general. Nutrition. Basically talking to people and working through the situtation. Medication might be one of those tools. It might not.

I know that my doctors did the best that they thought they could. I was in crisis — and they wanted to help. I want us to learn something from my difficult experience. Medicine should never be the main therapy provided. It might work and be helpful alongside something else, but we really need to start talking openly about everything that is on offer. Medicine, like everything else, has its pros and cons. Let’s talk about them. Let’s lay it all on the table and give the power to the individual to choose from a variety of options. It is their life, after all.

Finally — I want you to find hope in my story. This is a story of serious mental health challenges, and it is a story of recovery. Even when the outlook is bleak and the night is dark, there is something to look forward to. We can recover, and we must be given all the options and tools to do so.

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32 COMMENTS

  1. Svava, thank you so much for this post.

    I find it profoundly moving to learn of your courage and determination – surviving this list of 16 “medications” with such wide ranging potential for marked adverse drug reactions.

    For you to successfully continue your studies whilst, or after taking these prescription drugs, and to qualify as an Occupational Therapist is a measure of your resilience and determination.
    (I appreciate this prescribing commenced in 2005).

    Many young people subjected to such unscientific and ill-conceived prescribing may find themselves unemployed, labelled for life and robbed of all life’s hopes, dreams and aspirations.
    An unforgivable outcome for alleged “medical care”.
    To be told that they have an irreversible chemical brain imbalance is both deceitful and personally devastating.
    It is also unforgivable.

    Such ill-advised prescribing may apply to many young women and men before they have completed their education and established their careers.

    Some have been misdiagnosed and have no mental illness.
    Others, in distress, would benefit from alternative forms of support and care with deliberate and thoughtful prescriber avoidance of all such psychotropic drugs.

    Your post leads me ask how committed and insightful Occupational Therapists might contribute to these “medically” – disadvantaged young people in their commencement of – or re-entry into productive and rewarding employment.
    How might they begin to move forward at a time when their career hopes and dreams have been devastated by “drug-dependent” psychiatrists and their cruel and inaccurate labels?

    Thank you.

    TRM 123. Retired Consultant Physician.

  2. My loony psychiatrists forced and coerced 27 different drugs on me, based upon the same “chemical imbalance” “incurable” lies. The US psychiatrists are even more insane and satanic than the Icelandic psychiatrists, believe it or not. And getting off all the drugs is what cured me too.

    I agree with the doc above, “To be told that they have an irreversible chemical brain imbalance is both deceitful and personally devastating. It is also unforgivable.” But very few of the psychiatrists want forgiveness is my understanding. They’re hell bent on poisoning all the school children instead.

    But it is good, “Russian Roulette is not the same without a gun,” and we both survived. Thanks for sharing your story.

  3. Svava:
    I am an American psychiatrist who practices psychotherapy. Along with people like you, I am participating in this website in the hope of ending the horrible harms being done to millions like you, by biological psychiatry’s lies and drugs, which I don’t think help anybody. In my research, I have discovered that Iceland is the only country that “treats ADHD” with amphetamines, and “treats depression” with “antidepressants”, as often as the United States does. This is probably what caused Iceland and the U.S. to become the top per-capita drug overdosing countries in the world. But while in the U.S., biological psychiatry’s “success” has been driven by the profit motive, from my understanding, Iceland has socialized medicine, so there is less financial incentive to invent fake diseases in order to lure people into looking for “medical cures” for them (which instead ruin their lives and thus produce permanent customers). So if greed is less of a driving factor for doctors to push/practice the biomedical model in Iceland, do you know what is motivating them to commit such harms more often than doctors do in other nations with socialized medicine?
    Lawrence

    • To Dr.

      1) To have a monopoly and
      2) Too many Americans overuse medications.

      No matter how thin you slice it there are always two sides – Spinoza.

      I know that I must take the medication I have been given. It also goes against my personal philosophy to take something I don’t need.

    • I’m not sure there is less financial incentive in socialized medicine. The doctors can still be bribed the same way doctors in the US are bribed. There’s an especially big incentive to buy the doctors that advise the health department on what treatments and drugs to fund.

  4. A benzo taken at a time of extreme stress. A cold-turkey withdrawal from the benzo. The shakes as a withdrawal effect. A diagnosis of agitated depression. An antidepressant which resulted in akathisia. Diagnosed with worsening depression. More than 30 drugs given – a new one almost every week – no wash-out allowed. The diagnosis changed to dementia and psychotic depression. 25 rounds of forced bilateral ECT followed. It took only 8 months. Most of the drugs were administered in the first two months. It took only 25 years of my memory. Blank. All gone. Blank.

    • ” But the most pernicious of all is that The System appears to have a complete inability to appreciate when the treatments it gives becomes the problem that it tries to treat by adding in more drugs and if need be, detaining us in order to do do so” – Professor David Healy 2017.

      Shame on them Amnesia.

      I never thought such evil as this could exist out-with war crimes: – crimes against humanity.
      Most certainly not in my own profession.

      “Evil I think, is the absence of empathy” Captain Gustav M. Gilbert.
      (Psychologist at the Nuremberg Trials. 1945 – 1949).

      • Pernicious indeed. As in Amnesia’s “shotgun” full of drugs “treatment”. But worse than this was the fact that ECT was shotgun administered, destroying 25 years of her life.
        So, quoting David Healy, who promotes and administers the brain damaging ECT that John Read just finished describing in his podcast, makes me feel quite sick and enraged.

        Glad to see Dr. Healy, so worried about drugs, offering up a reward for a “cure” for PSSD (post SSRI induced sexual dysfunction) through the RXISK website.
        When will the reward and offer be made for PECTBI- post ECT brain injury?? Oh, I forgot, brain damage from ECT is permanent, no cure for lost memories, decimated IQ, blunted emotions, lost career skill sets.
        How many people given “shotgun” medical drug “treatment” became candidates for and recipients of brain boiling ECT?

          • Well, amnesia, that’s the lovely thing about it- the victims of ECT are usually too disabled to try to get justice. Well, not that there is justice to be had for the destruction of your mind, memories, identity….
            Do agree that RxISK is a very valuable site and it exists largely bc of Dr. Healy.

            As a side note, I want to mention my admiration for Saddam Hussein’s campaign to eradicate illiteracy, providing free and compulsory education to all residents. He also, with his govt, instituted a new public health system that granted free hospitalization for all citizens….I’m not sure about his position on ECT…

    • MEDICAL RAPE! That is so tragic and I weep for you. I can also totally relate to it.
      FOR ME – 2 weeks of an SSRI, for stress, recommended by a friend = an overnight acute suicidal reaction, – incarceration and 30 electroshocks in 12 weeks (66 in 20 months) – a diagnosis of bipolar – extensive poly pharmacy – suicidal, among other reactions to those – a total of 87 electroshock treatments – I feel I was RAPED for 13 years! (I was raped when young and the feeling is exactly the same, the abuse of power.)
      LOST – memory of my children growing up – relationship with my children – my career as a sculptor – my career as a writer. (now on welfare) – part of my intellect – my personality – my friends – my self respect and 15 years of my life.
      GAINED – PTSD – brain damage – 3 years of withdrawal symptoms –
      Now drug and psych symptom free, but still outraged by what this appalling profession is getting away with.

      • How does a “doctor” or “treatment team” get away with that kind of drugging and shocking? How does someone’s brain even survive 87 ECT?
        Svava was poisoned and mistrested and lied to, but she is so lucky to have escaped ECT/electrical lobotomy, the very worst thing “shotgun” medicine has to offer.

  5. Svava

    Glad you made it. I was not so lucky. My story began like yours but back 50 yrs when I was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic and dosed with everything under the sun including Haldol which gave me seizures at work. I was just a very very sensitive boy in a very dysfunctional family where I was labeled the sick one. I ended up dropping out of college with a nervous breakdown. I struggled back without meds and eventually accomplished many things but took on the victim role replicating my family for the rest of my life and always went back to meds thinking that there was always something broken in me when I ran into trouble. I’m now a 65 yo disabled professional who has lost everything. I hope others learn from our stories.

  6. Sounds familiar. I wouldn’t be so sure about the doctors good intentions. My psychiatrist actually told me that drugs won’t work but she still insisted I’ll continue taking them and keep trying new ones.

    She later tried to take back what she said cause she really wanted me to be on drugs. The aspiration that a patient would be on drugs is not related to interest in patient well-being. And when a psychiatrist tells the truth it’s usually an accident. I’m sure what she said was a slip of the tongue, and she later regretted it.

    She became hostile when I refused to take anymore drugs cause they won’t help – as she said herself. I also told my parents what she said and that made it difficult for her to manipulate them and turn them against me (which the standard psychiatric practice, though sometimes it’s the family that tries to turn the psychiatrists). It didn’t help the facade of a benevolent real doctor who practice real scientific evidence based medical field.

    That’s why psychiatrists always lie, to keep up the charade that they’re real doctors.
    I’m glad you’ve got through it, you’re very lucky you found help.

    I can’t get help cause I’m a “bad patient”, and I’m always being blackmailed to see psychiatrist even though my depression is “drug resistant”.

  7. I really like those Icelandic names that end with “…dottir”. Like from “Smila’s Sense of Snow”…. Yes, Svava, there are many here whose story is like yours, and I’m one more, too! We need to remember that psychiatry is a pseudoscience, a drug racket, and a means of social control. It’s 21st Century Phrenology, with potent neuro-toxins. It’s about money, yes, but also about power and (social) control. Psychs are “ADDICTED” to prescribing drugs, and in their dishonesty, they call them “meds”, or “medications”. This use of euphemisms is a sure sign of psychiatry’s inherent dishonesty. So-called “mental illnesses” are exactly as real as presents from Santa Claus, – but not more real. The DSM is nothing more than a catal;og of billing codes. It was invented, just as “mental illnesses” were invented, to sell drugs, and to maintain the power and prestige of both psychs themselves, and the (mostly white, male)power structure…. I’m so glad you found MiA! WELCOME!
    (c)2017, Tom Clancy, Jr., *NON-fiction

  8. Svava, Thanks for the enlightening story, although it’s sad to see how badly they treated you! In my opinion perhaps because you were an athlete somehow you were over-producing lactic acid which comes from your muscles during exercise. This has to be excreted by the body, but sometimes your body can’t catch up. So there’s too much produced, but it’s not excreted fast enough, so the lactic acid produces the panic attack. And that’ it! IT’s not emotional, but it is so scary to have those attacks, that it starts to become associated with scary events and places…….. Usually a person changes lifestyle and that will get rid of the panic attacks. Which might mean finding nice people, better friends, quiet spaces, relaxing times, reading, etc. Sometimes less coffee, too, or less alcohol.

    Certainly not getting oneself imprisoned and taking dangerous drugs without informed consent. Geez you were snowed with them. That is terrible you were given all those.

    Julie

  9. Dear Svava

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    I really felt with you when reading your story.

    I have had numerus diagnoses in the past regarding mental health and epilepsy and have taken lots of diferent kinds of medicine over the years.

    I´ve been locked up in a closed mental hospital when I had suicide thoughts and I felt like an animal with no rights whatsoever.

    I´ve been told by neurologists that I could only live the rest of my life in good condition, regarding my epileptic seizures, if I took medicine for the rest of my life.
    And I´ve only had bad side effects of all the epileptic medicine and I´yelled at doctors when they wouldn´t listen to me.

    All my mental problems have been a direct cause of my upbringing, living with a very mentally ill mom who tried to have sex with me, an uncle that constantly beat me up and lots of bullying in school.

    And the psychiatrists and shrinks only wanted me to take medicine all the time instead of helping me cope with my traumas.

    Denmark is known to be a happy country to live in but there is also a dark side here, where, if you are very sick, you have to fight all the time for your rights because the government only sees you as a case, that needs to comform to the working area in Denmark and thereby contribute to the society as a whole.

    You don´t hear this on the news when hearing about wonderful Denmark.

    When I was at my lowest, again and again, I couldn´t get the people that were supposed to help me, to help me.

    There is something wrong with the society here, when the only solution to mental problems, is by taking medicine.

    Things have gotten a little better now, with the advent of more recovery therapeutic approaches and the rather new peer to peer inclusions with people who have lived experience

    I have taken the new Peer Education in regards to mental health and see it as a way for the future, of having good mental health.

    No educated scholars can teach people with mental problems on how to get better, if they don´t have experienced mental problems themselves or have peers, with lived experience, to work with, and together, cooperate in giving the best care in order to get better.

    Being a scholar and teaching on how to get better mentally, without the above mentioned cooperation or experience, is like an ape teaching people to drive, even though the ape itself, can´t drive.

    I am now free of epileptic seizures and take no medicine what so ever, because I have tried to heal myself constantly, when the society as a whole, couldn´t or wouldn´t, help me.

    Not all people can do this though, as it requires so much strenght which they don´t have when they are sick.

    Since Denmark is also a very small country and chabges take time to come here, I hope to find lots of inspiration on this site and from people like you, Svava:)

    Thank you so much for sharing your story!

    Best regards,
    John Beltran