I recently submitted my last article about 10 things I’d learned in 5 years of consulting with people coming off psychiatric meds to a local zine requesting writing on alternative approaches.
I did not read over their submission guidelines carefully, nor did I know who they were or what they stood for, except that they seemed to be speaking out against forced treatment and for humane alternatives.
It was described as a zine on mental health responses that don’t involve the state, insurance, etc. originated by people who both struggle with mental health concerns, have been non-consensually incarcerated for “treatment,” and provided this support to others.
I got an email back saying thank you for your submission, but it doesn’t really fit with the topic of mental health crises, these are the questions we want answered (the same ones I had skimmed over the first time):
1. How did you become aware of the need?
2. What made you decide to meet it?
3. What worked well? What didn’t?
4. What community supports does someone who is doing this work need?
Having a busy week where I was getting multiple emails a day from people who had read my blog and told me how psychiatric drugs had ruined their health and life, I starred the email in case I’d have time to write a piece for the local zine, answering their questions more directly.
I never did get to it and it fell into my long list of starred emails that I’d respond to if time started falling from the sky one day…
About a week later I got another email from the local zine organizer. They asked a few questions about my experience and said they would be interested in a story about helping people go through the withdrawal process. They wrote, “We would not publish anything that said that psychiatric medicine was bad ‘full stop’ as at least one of our organizers credits their meds with keeping them alive.”
I hadn’t used the word “bad” to describe psychiatric drugs, and certainly not the phrase “full stop,” and it disturbed me that by writing about what people are struggling with on psychiatric drugs and in withdrawal, someone would feel the need to caution me against saying psychiatric drugs are bad “full stop.”
There is such a large platform and loud microphone for “PSYCHIATRIC DRUGS SAVED MY LIFE.” No one hasn’t heard that line. It’s the mainstream party line in conversations about the dangers of psychiatric drugs and withdrawal, such as: “Of course psychiatric meds save lives and some people need them but for others they can be problematic and near impossible to get off of…”
“Psychiatric drugs save lives” is considered medicine and science by journalists. They write that, or something similar, as a disclaimer almost, as if to say they aren’t anti-science, anti-medicine or anti-evidence. They write it to give “both sides of the story,” while plenty of news articles are written about psychiatric drugs that don’t give the side of the story where psychiatric drugs ruin lives and kill people.
The media refers to the side of the story where meds kill people and make them suicidal or disabled as literature, opinion, politics, anything but science and medicine. This is odd because scientific studies do show that psychiatric drugs cause suicidality and many health problems in a large number of individuals.
Psychiatric drugs cause enough severe health problems that the drug companies have to warn of all of these possible conditions on every single advertisement and prescription.
“Psychiatric drugs save lives,” while it may be a true statement for many, is at least as close to mythology and opinion as “psychiatric drugs destroy lives and kill people” (I’d say much closer, but that’s “just my opinion”). It could be placebo and/or getting attention and other help that actually saves the lives of those in despair. We don’t know for sure.
What we do know is that once someone’s life is destroyed or killed by psychiatry, they no longer have the voice to testify. That’s why I wrote the blog Michael Samuel Bloom, my very first post on Mad In America. Michael fell into both camps: one might say psychiatric drugs both saved his life and killed him. Again, there is no scientific evidence that can prove or disprove either statement.
Life and death also can’t exactly be reduced to a pill, as there are many people with the same diagnoses who take or abstain from the same pills and some live while others die. Since the diagnoses don’t have biological basis or involve medical tests, there’s absolutely no evidence of a medication curing, halting or slowing any biological process that would be killing someone, by their own hand or otherwise.
I wrote that blog because no one else was going to tell the story of how psychiatric drugs killed Michael. I’m not saying that is the only story, but it is part of a larger story, a part I could see, having known him his whole life. I understood things maybe others in his life didn’t, having been on the drugs myself and worked with others on and off them for over a decade when Michael killed himself soon after having been put on several more drugs.
I’m not worried about marginalizing people who think psychiatric drugs saved their life. Their story has been told over and over. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Their suffering was and is real, and psychiatric drugs may have relieved some of it in a way that prevented them from suicide or other death-inducing behaviors. The same could be and has been said of heroin, alcohol and other substances.
Just because psychiatric meds may save some lives, doesn’t mean they are the best or least harmful way to save lives. A starving person’s life can be saved by candy bars, or by a home-cooked, locally grown meal made with love, care and fresh ingredients. Both will save someone’s life, but if eaten day after day for every meal, the candy bars will eventually ruin the person’s life and health, while the home-cooked meals will enhance and build it.
In an emergency moment, the candy bars may be just what someone needs to prevent starvation: the quick sugar, the high calories. What helps someone survive in an emergency is rarely what helps sustain and nourish them day after day. Long-term healing requires nourishment on all levels rather than chemical sedation, stimulation or restraint.
It’s not about whether it’s right or wrong, true or false that psychiatric drugs save lives. Science can never figure out for sure if it is a drug that saved someone’s life or all of the other factors that go along with having an emergency, getting a diagnosis and taking a prescription medication that one is told will help relieve their suffering.
It’s about telling the stories that aren’t being told.
That’s why psychiatric drugs saved my life after they destroyed my health and nearly killed me. They gave me something I care about and am passionate about writing about. They gave me a pathway to bring healing to others. Life is paradoxical that way. The thing that nearly kills us, can also save our life. The thing that saves our life, can also kill us.
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.