Why meds alone won’t ever clean up mental illness
By Megan Devlin
Many refuse to acknowledge the pervasion of mental health disorders in society, especially among children and young adults. Rather than seek outside help, minors are often persuaded by parental preferences and professional suggestion to rely on medication to treat their mental health disorders.
This over-reliance on prescription drugs has been influenced by consumerism. In modern society, individual interests are linked strongly to those of our capitalist economy. It does not mean that members of society do not possess a free will, but rather that conscious choice is often swayed by the power of capitalist America.
Sophia Terazwa, a sophomore Ithaca College student, was first diagnosed with what was believed to be depression. Later on, doctors claimed she had developed a more severe mental illness. The pressure to take heavy medication forced Sophia to dropout of high school her sophomore year.
“I started having delusions and getting paranoid,” Terazwa said. “My doctor wanted to put me on an antipsychotic, but my mom was really against the medication.”
According to Health Affairs, the drug market is a $140 billion dollar industry whose spending on prescription drugs has been steadily growing at a rate of 15 percent to 18 percent per year. In 2000 alone, drug manufacturers spent nearly $16 billion on the promotion of drugs, $2.5 billion of which was spent on direct-to-consumer advertising. This influences the prescription of medicines based on consumer demands when, in some cases, they may not be medically necessary.
Duff Wilson, a journalist for The New York Times, covers stories on the pharmaceutical industry. His recent focus is on the over-marketing of antipsychotics, the tranquilizing substances used to treat psychosis. Wilson said today, experts agree that doctors are more likely to recommend drug treatment as opposed to therapy. Through his research, Wilson has discovered the “piecework mentality of medical care.” The determining factor almost always comes back to economics.
Kaylie Crawford, a freshman at IC, has suffered from depression since fourth grade. Depression, as defined by the World Health Organization, is a common mental disorder that combines depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, low energy and poor concentration. Living with this psychological disorder from such a young age has allowed Crawford to experience the full realm of treatment options and thereby express her concern for the direction in which society is headed.
“People don’t invest in prevention, they invest in fixing once it’s a problem,” she said.
Although the drug industry has spent almost double the funds in research and development, which have led to the production of products that have altered the process and outcomes of treatment for major diseases, the pill-push mentality still exists and poses a significant threat to mental stability.
Unlike many, Crawford approached her parents with her concerns, who decided that she should seek the professional help of a therapist with whom she could share her problems.
“I wasn’t just medicated and left at that,” Crawford said. “It was actually contemplated whether or not it would be safe [for me] to be on medication.”
Dr. Michael B. First, director and editor of the research agenda for the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, explains his findings on what constitutes a great threat to those “diagnosed” with psychotic disorders: “Although the past two decades have produced a great deal of progress in neurobiological investigations, the field has thus far failed to identify a single neurobiological phenotypic marker or gene that is useful in making a diagnosis of a major psychiatric disorder or for predicting response to psychopharmacological treatment,” he said.
Despite technological innovation in the field of medicine, psychiatry is largely a guessing game dependent on the subjective diagnosing of mental health conditions. For this reason, medicine has become a process of elimination—ruling out what one does not have by mere observation.
Terazwa expressed her gratitude for waiting to take medication for a mental illness that was still unclearly diagnosed.
“I’m glad my mom didn’t put me on antipsychotics right away,” she said. “I was still trying to figure myself out and I was really unsure of what I was experiencing.”
Dr. Peter Breggin, a psychiatric reformer and private psychiatry practitioner in Ithaca, criticizes many of the diagnostic processes for mental conditions.
“There is no such thing as ‘mental illness,’” Breggin said. “There are psychological problems, and there are physical problems.”
Breggin believes that antipsychotics are toxic to the nervous system, requiring it to compensate the toxicity with abnormal cell growth. As a result, he said that these psychoactive substances disrupt brain function and worsen medical conditions over time. His radical view of medication has led to his belief that therapy and proper education have the potential to treat any state of mental instability without the use of medication.
However, through her own experience, Crawford emphasized the importance of both medication and therapy. She explained how her doctor prescribed her medication in order for her to feel an immediate relief by helping to balance out the chemicals in her brain. She said that without the antidepressants, she would have been stuck in an inescapable thought cycle of negativity. However, Crawford also said that her doctor understood that medication is not a long-term fix.
“It’s nothing without the support of a therapist,” Crawford said. “The medicine is like a gateway, but therapy teaches you how to live again.”
Unfortunately, it is still considered more socially acceptable for parents to provide their children with medication than send children to therapeutic counseling. It is difficult for parents who feel they have to rely on outside help in order to cope with the effects of psychotic disorders when the “fix-it” mentality is ubiquitous.
Breggin said the push from drug companies and “big money advocates” has created a huge stigma surrounding mental health. His assertion is that those with mental struggles are made to believe that they are “diseased.”
Terazwa had never been heavily medicated until last semester, after she started hearing voices. Although at first she was just frightened by what she was experiencing, her fear turned to depression and then to thoughts of suicide. However, when she sought out help, she felt an even greater threat from the stigma surrounding her condition.
“They said I was schizophrenic and prescribed me antipsychotics,” she said. “When you hear the word ‘antipsychotic,’ you think, ‘She’s psychotic. There’s something really wrong with her.’”
The stigma surrounding psychological disorders is huge and poses a threat to mental health recovery. Pharmaceutical conglomerates are only partially responsible for the drug market’s influence on society. Not only has society been coerced to believe that a pill will cure anything, but certain stigmas have dissuaded parents from talking to their children about their mental wellness. For those with mental health disorders, this is a fearful notion.
“I’m really lucky because a lot of parents could have just said, ‘Buck up, you’re sad, make new friends,’” Crawford said.
She shared her appreciation for her parents’ openness and understanding after she had approached them with concerns about her mental health at such a young age. However, Crawford is one of the few who are fortunate to receive such support. Many people with mental health disorders are limited by the stigma.
Labels can be demeaning and damaging, an automatic mechanism for disempowerment. Without a strong support system, people with mental health problems do not know how to properly cope with their disorder. Social support and therapeutic counseling are the first steps in demystifying the stigma. The combination empowers individuals to cope with their mental struggles.
Crawford compares the dual components of treatment for mental illness to a student’s journey through the educational system: You can sign up for classes in the same way you can receive prescription medication and take it as recommended. But, without the support and guidance of your teacher, you will never reach your full potential.
Succumbing to societal assumptions and relying on medication to clean society of mental health issues won’t help those with psychotic disorders. Instead, it will only help craft a reality built on misguided beliefs that will supposedly lead to a “cure.” However, without believing in recovery balanced by medication and therapeutic support, it’s not possible.
Eliminating mental health disorders is impossible, but that’s ok. People should understand that recovery is the end, not the means. Those undergoing treatment must help society coexist with mental health.
Megan Devlin is a freshman journalism major. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.