Crash: A Memoir of Overmedication and Recovery (Charing Cross Press, 2022) by Ann Bracken
It sneaks up on you—depression, overmedication, and just depressed and overmedicated author of Crash Ann Bracken was by the time she realized that depression was the least of her worries. One minute, the reader is immersed in an isolated world of a terrified child whose mother never “comes back” from “mental illness” and the treatment she endured for decades. The next minute, the reader’s heart pounds, his or her head swims, and breath catches in his or her chest right along with Bracken’s. When did Ann’s migraine start? How many medications is she taking? How long has her husband been speaking to her like that? Why does every one of Bracken’s doctors sound the same?
Why does every one of her doctors sound the same indeed—including the fact that not one of them asked her about her relationships (or anything else about her environment) before they adjusted (usually increased) her medication both in terms of dosage and variety. Bracken weaves together research on the harmful side effects, known since at least the 1970s, of psychotropic medication, especially the interactions of multiple psych meds, with her personal experience of some of these exact harms as well as finally understanding what she as a child witnessed of her mother’s experience of these harms. Her portrayal of herself as a dutiful, compliant patient in order to avoid the harshest treatments but also because she at one point trusted her doctors implicitly (as many do) makes the length of time she was in an abusive marriage all the more heartbreaking.
The demands of the mental health industry for its “patients” to be compliant is still an unfamiliar feature to many. I’ve talked to more people in mental and emotional distress in the last few months than I have in the few years before the pandemic, and nearly all of them have seriously considered checking themselves into a hospital for relief—and not even as a last resort. None of them had any concept of just how severe the expectation would be to conform to whatever “wellness” looked like to the “treatment” providers, to say nothing of the major rights violations, dehumanizing treatment, mandatory medication, and other mainstays that have scarred so many psychiatric survivors. The people I’ve talked to that were considering voluntary commitment saw the hospital not even as a lesser of all options but as an overall healing place that would benefit them. Most of them are still under the impression that, if they check themselves in voluntarily, then they are able to engage in any of the “services” a psychiatric ward provides and that they are free to leave at any time.
This is very often not the case because, once you enter a psych ward, you are basically assumed to be incompetent and therefore, when you leave and what you’ll do for the duration you’re there are not up to you. Hospitals are incentivized by insurance and a medical system that loses money if people get healthy and don’t depend on it anymore, so they are interested in maximizing a person’s stay for the cashflow from reimbursements rather than for their well-being. This is stating the obvious for the veterans of the psychiatric system, but most of this is still not common knowledge.
The mistrust of doctors has been growing the last few decades, especially in the last three years. But, even as an increasing number of people are seeking alternatives to the Western medical model, it is still largely taboo to question a whitecoat about their recommendation of psych meds, as if these pills are sacred or something. And it makes sense: everyone who is not a doctor repeats the refrain “don’t start or stop medications without talking to your doctor,” in concert with the mantra that “it’s okay” to “need” medication oozing out of society’s pores. It is important to start or stop medication under the guidance of a doctor but emphasizing this without qualifications—like what philosophy the doctor has about “mental illness,” for example—seems to have led people to the conclusion that doctors are to be worshipped rather than the more appropriate one, which is that psych meds are dangerous substances.
Bracken portrays this fear of crossing doctors in mental health matters aptly in Crash; she notes just how widespread the practice is of correlating the level of “illness” with willingness to comply. This is a dangerous amount of power to give doctors, not just because it bestows the ability to force harmful chemicals down the throat of anyone they deem to “need” them (if a “patient” pushes back or even asks questions it’s construed by mainstream doctors as simply a demonstration of the need for said chemicals). It also allows those who are at best ignorant and indoctrinated (because they were trained by pharmaceutical companies; more below) and at worst intentionally seeking more power for themselves to define reality.
This is probably one reason “mental illnesses” have “skyrocketed” since (and even before) the pandemic: Big Pharma, aka companies who seek ever-increasing markets for their products that cause the very symptoms they claim to “treat” (and more!), has been allowed to define what “mental” and physical illness is for decades—even more so with the release of the DSM 5 in May of 2013. “Mental illness” is now defined by the market needs of criminal cartels that rely on force, intimidation, and deceit for their business practices. And they’ve trained an unwitting army of “mental health professionals” as well as medical/health care workers, advocates, current patients and “allies” to perpetuate their narratives.
The myth of the chemical imbalance theory even showed up in a Christian lay-counselor training I was in recently: during our unit on depression and suicide, the trainer extolled the benefits of SSRIs—of course using a personal story to emphasize the effectiveness of the medications without even giving lip service to the proven fact that every human being’s biochemistry is different, just as (and maybe even because) everyone’s life experience is different. He recited the same line that many “mental health advocates” repeat: “Just like a diabetic needs insulin, there’s no shame in needing antidepressants if you’re experiencing depression.” This is not the article to discuss whether insulin is actually an appropriate treatment for type 2 diabetes, but it’s important to note, since it’s the most commonly used analogy for promoting the use of psych meds as a “treatment” for “mental illness,” that there is actually some—growing yet suppressed—question about the line of thinking that type 2 diabetics “need” (or should be given) insulin, so in that way, then, perhaps it is an apt metaphor. The conflation of mental illness with physical illness is a stronghold in this culture, and it’s the bedrock of Big Pharma’s business plan.
Bracken tackles the chemical imbalance myth as she places the deep harm psychotropic medications do, especially in concert with other psychotropic medications, squarely in the light. In Crash, she relays the research she did about the long-known harms of psych meds as she discovered it—first with disbelief, then with confusion, then with anger, then with confidence that her doctors either didn’t know about it (or else why would they be making the recommendations they were making for her multi-med regime) or had other research to refute it. She did not suspect the immediate dismissal that her erstwhile trusted doctor gave her. When she pointed out that the list of symptoms she was experiencing were exactly the ones listed in the tomes of research she had come across about the “side effects” (as if suicidal thoughts are a mere bother off to the side) of psych meds, her doctor didn’t even ask to see these studies or ask any questions at all. He simply parroted the line that too many psychiatric survivors have heard: “It’s the depression/anxiety/[insert diagnosis here] returning. That’s why you need to stay on your meds for life.”
Bracken’s doctor told her exactly that: that her brain had been damaged by depression (of course it couldn’t be the medications he was prescribing her) and she needed to stay on her antidepressants for life to keep the depression from returning. Her doctor himself was on them, and he considered living depression-free worth all the other side effects of the medications, including his potentially marriage-destroying lack of libido. This is not an extreme case: Crash is a poignant reminder that there are still so many people suffering under the biomedical model and being told that their symptoms are simply a “chemical imbalance” without environmental factors being taken into account. So many people consuming multiple kinds of medications—more for the side effects that other medications are causing than their original complaints—without having given fully informed consent. It is still shocking to read how horribly many doctors are willing to treat their patients, and how they persist in willful ignorance about the harms their prescriptions are causing. And it’s worth asking if doctors might have something like Stockholm Syndrome related to Big Pharma, just as many of the highly institutionalized “patients” that viciously attack anyone who questions the safety and efficacy of medications might.
Bracken does not explicitly call out Big Pharma, though. Doctors certainly have some culpability in this situation as it is their job to make sure they are adequately trained and properly keeping up on the latest studies, as well as the funders of those studies. But they are mostly doing what they’re trained to do; people don’t know what they don’t know. Medical schools and licensing boards have been deeply infiltrated by Big Pharma such that the pharmaceutical industry is basically writing the curriculum that future doctors have to learn well enough to pass licensing boards. To ensure that doctors don’t question the prevailing narrative of their benefactors (the drug industry), most of the bribes the pharmaceutical industry offers to prescribers are simply irresistible. No book can cover everything, but Bracken doesn’t mention Big Pharma’s tentacles and influence hardly at all in a book about overmedication. Big Pharma has taken an even more prominent role in molding our culture, demanding conformity and breaking up families if individuals don’t go along with the dominant narrative. Even “mental health advocacy” groups default to encouraging people to not stop taking their meds and pushing for increased access to mental health “services,” which nearly always means increased access to medication with lip service to therapy.
The other curious aspect of Crash is that Bracken never identifies as a psychiatric survivor. She’d “qualify” to be considered one, but, to stay aligned with the movement’s principles, it’s vital that people self-identify as a psychiatric survivor. I don’t personally know Bracken so I can only hazard a guess, which would be that perhaps she believes that the root cause of her “mental illness” was not genetics, though her mom faced depression so severe that she was overmedicated for probably the rest of her life despite Bracken’s efforts to stop that. It wasn’t a brain-chemistry imbalance, either. It was, in fact, the 28 years of slow-release abuse in her marriage. Once she came to terms with needing to end her marriage and went through the process of doing that—not without pain itself—she was free from the mental and emotional suffering that her doctors had prolonged for years not just by overmedicating her, but by not bothering to ask about things like her relationships, career satisfaction, and other environmental factors that obviously play a huge role in a person’s well-being but are still rarely brought up in mainstream mental health “treatment.”
Though Bracken did not challenge Big Pharma (instead focusing on doctors’ complicity) and did not mention the accomplice role many mental health “advocacy” organizations have perhaps unwittingly taken on, her story is a powerful, heartbreaking wake-up call about how the severely damaging effects of medications that claim to relieve suffering can threaten generations in a family. It’s an essential voice in the puzzle of mental and emotional distress that demands more of doctors, calls for us to stop compartmentalizing human beings and reminds us that we are only as healthy as our environments. Unless we’re taking psych meds—then, we’re probably a whole lot worse off than we could be. And doctors know or should know that by now.
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.
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