How I Learned the Truth about “Magic Bullets”

In August of 2006, my former husband wasn’t sleeping well. He was stressed by the impending failure of his business, a marriage in shambles and his father’s worsening health. He needed help. He reached out to a friend of his, a doctor, who prescribed anti-depressants.

Within 48 hours of taking his first pill, David announced, “I’m hearing voices telling me to jump from the Vista bridge.” His tone was so detached, it was as if he was delivering the news that the mail had just arrived. I dropped the dish I’d been drying to the hardwood floor.

As I would later learn, people with bipolar disorder are at very high risk for suicidal ideation. Antidepressants may also increase suicidal behavior in pediatric, and possibly, adult, major depressive disorder. Mixed states are associated with suicidality and antidepressants, especially when administered as monotherapy. The anti-depressants had pushed David over into a manic conversion.

“Overprescription” was a word I would later understand when I saw David catatonic in a hospital, drooling, physically unable to move his limbs. The approach was not, “What are the factors that contributed to this man’s breakdown?” but instead, “Try a drug, any drug.” It was as if recovery wasn’t in the realm of possibility, until doctors could find a magic cocktail of pills. David was largely unresponsive to the medication. Twenty-four hours after being released from a psychiatric hospital, he took his life.

Award-winning science and history author Robert Whitaker is determined to solve a puzzle: why has the mental illness epidemic grown in size and scope, even as the country spends billions of dollars every year on antidepressants and antipsychotics?

Whitaker points out that as the psychopharmacology revolution has unfolded, the number of disabled mentally ill in the United States has skyrocketed. Mental illness now disables 850 adults and 250 children every day. According to Whitaker’s book, Anatomy of an Epidemic, “Those numbers only hint at the scope of the problem, for they are only a count of those who have become so newly ill that their families or caregivers are eligible to receive a disability check from the federal government.”

Psychiatry has largely forsaken the practice of talk therapy for the seductive and more lucrative practice of prescribing drugs. Although we know that many people are helped by psychiatric drugs and will personally attest to how the drugs have helped them lead normal lives, there are a host of deeply troubling consequences to a culture that favors prescriptions over therapy.

Whittaker’s book, “Anatomy of an Epidemic,” won the best investigative journalism book of 2010 for “Punching holes in the conventional wisdom of treatment of mental illness with drugs.”

The Foundation for Excellence in Mental Health Care formed in 2011 in response to the growing crisis. The international mental health community matches private philanthropy to non-biased research and programs that lead to recovery.

The strategy is three fold; Research, recovery program development, and education. Grants from the Research Fund and donor-advised funds drive research that is free from the influence of the pharmaceutical industry. The Recovery program development provides real alternatives to medication and the dissemination of effective recovery-oriented programs. The education curricula support professional symposiums, education and support groups, community dialog and educational films as some of the ways donors are changing the conversation and getting the expectation of recovery into the mainstream.

As Gina Nikkel, the CEO of the Foundation for Excellence in Mental Health Care says, “Ours is nothing like a standard corporate mission. It is a statement of deeply felt solidarity and a rousing call to action. We can reform mental health care-the time has come- and Excellence gives us the structure we need to do so effectively.”
Antidepressants and suicidal behavior in bipolar disorder.
McElroy SL, Kotwal R, Kaneria R, Keck PE Jr.
Bipolar Disord. 2006 Oct;8(5 Pt 2):596-617. Review.

The Foundation for Excellence in Mental health Care

Robert Whitaker:



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