Myths About Psychiatric Drugs

1.  Psych drugs are prescribed by a doctor so they’re safe. This is a very old myth that obviously isn’t true,but it is what gets so many of us into trouble, especially as young people who may have been taught that pharmaceuticals are tested and proven safe and effective.

Most doctors don’t know how psychiatric drugs “work”. They have taken the health, and in some cases life, away from countless of my friends and associates. They can cause suicidal and homicidal thoughts, feelings and behavior, unsafe levels of weight gain, diabetes, blood sugar problems, tardive dyskinesia (involuntary facial movements and twitches), extreme anxiety and panic, thyroid and adrenal problems, decreased immunity, chronic fatigue, brain malfunction and pre-frontal cortex damage, the list is endless. You can find most of these unsafe effects of psychiatric drugs right in the pamphlet given to you when the pills are prescribed.

2.  You can stop taking psych drugs easily if they don’t help. Often people are easily convinced to give psychiatric drugs a try, because. why not? If they don’t work, you’ll stop taking them just like allergy meds, so you may as well give it a whirl if you’re feeling desperate.

Not so fast. Many many people struggle for years to withdraw from psychiatric pharmaceuticals of all classes. Benzos and neuroleptics are the hardest for most people but I have worked with people taking all classes of psychiatric medications, including SSRIs, which are considered the easiest to withdraw from, but can still be extremely problematic when taken over a long period of time or incombination with other drugs in a cocktail.

3.  Psych drugs correct a chemical imbalance. No evidence has ever been shown that people who get mental health diagnoses have a chemical imbalance. This was a “theory” which has long since been disproven. It was formulated with the idealistic notion that if medications can help people with physical health conditions, perhaps there are pills that can help us with things like grief, and other ordinary life crises. This would be convenient for drug markets, and the myth has served those markets well.

If there were a chemical imbalance, people would have their hormones and other brain chemicals tested before being prescribed psychiatric drugs. It is true that some people have higher or lower rates of certain hormones and brain chemicals, but actual testing over a period of time to determine which ones and why would be the safer approach to this. Many factors such as sleep, exercise, stress, trauma and actual physical health conditions can effect brain chemistry. Telling someone how you are feeling and having them guess what is going on with your brain chemistry, and then give drugs that haven’t been tested for their effect on brain chemicals is Russian Roulette.

4.  Psych drugs stabilize people. This is such a huge myth and one I was told many many times. It gives people false hope. Psychiatric meds are inherently destabilizing because they damage internal organs and mess up chemistry. As they increase or decrease certain neurotransmitter activity, the body then over or under-compensates. This is why the effects of psych drugs change over time and they may seem to “work” for awhile but then the body builds up tolerance and they stop working. Then, once the undesirable effects kick in and worsen, there is naturally a desire to come off the drug.

In withdrawal, the body has to find a way to readjust and rewire the nervous system, rebuild the organs and heal their damage and re-balance the brain chemistry. Our bodies seek homeostasis, so taking a bunch of toxic chemicals every day and building up tolerance to them cannot be a path of stability. It creates a situation where the body is constantly trying to deal with unhelpful guests.

It’s basically like having lots of messy people who don’t contribute to any household chores but only make messes in all the rooms of your house become permanent house guests. Eventually you will have to kick them out and then recover from all the damage they did to your environment.

5.  Psych drugs are medicine to treat an illness.
6.  Psych drugs don’t do harm.
7.  The “side effects” of psych drugs aren’t so bad.
8.  Psych drugs make relationships function better.
9.  Psych drugs reduce violence.
10.  Psych drugs make it easier for people to work through trauma.
11.  Psych drugs have been tested for long term use.
12.  Doctors know how psych drugs work.
13.  Psych drugs save more lives than they kill.
14.  Psych drugs increase functionality.
15.  Psych drugs get people out of bed more than they flatten people in bed.
16.  Psych drugs reduce disability rates.
17.  Psych drugs make people feel like themselves again (by altering emotional responses).
18.  Psych drugs help children learn better.
19.  The main problem is the stigma against taking psych drugs.
20.  It’s kind and caring to suggest psych drugs to family and friends.
21.  Forcing psych drugs on someone against their will is compassionate.
22.  Psych drugs should be used preventively in children and pregnant women.
23.  Psych drugs are safer than illicit drugs.Please add other myths you’ve come across in the comments below.

Question: I was telling someone about your work and she asked about the people whose mental illness makes them violent. She did not believe it would be good for these people to go off their psych meds. I did not know how to respond to her. What are your thoughts? How would you respond?

Answer:: Thanks for asking. This question is complicated because it involves certain assumptions and interpretations that have never been proven to be true.

It isn’t “someone’s mental illness” that makes them violent since people can be violent whether or not they’ve received a psychiatric label. It is a matter of many factors that get someone labeled with a mental illness, but none are objective.

Some psychiatric drugs cause violence (it is fairly well known that most of the mass murderers in schools in recent years have been on psych drugs).

The other complication is that psych drugs, like all toxic substances, have withdrawal effects which might lead to violence. So someone in withdrawal might be more likely to be violent. Violence is mostly a learned behavior and is generally perpetuated by victims of violence and trauma.

I think focusing on healing from abuse and trauma would be more direct than labeling and drugging. There may be cases where drugs are chosen to sedate someone and make them less likely to be aggressive (if they are really tired) but I see this as a short term emergency “solution” and certainly not a resolution.

Psychiatric drugging and other mental health “treatments” are also a form of violence. So we must ask ourselves if this repression of emotions is in fact acceptable as an approach if we strive for non-violence.

It has never been shown that persons labeled with a mental illness are more likely to be violent than others though. I know violent people who have never been to a therapist or psychiatrist and the gentlest people in the world who have many psych labels.

In fact, Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, recently stated that all DSM labels lack validity and are not scientific. So it’s important to admit and acknowledge that these labels are arbitrary and can be given to anyone in a crisis at any time. They don’t indicate a fundamental illness. Ever.

I was at a Twelve Step meeting recently and heard several references to the “mentally ill.”

One was a woman who said she had a mentally ill sister and that was one reason she didn’t like to have friends over as a kid.

Another was a man who said on his block growing up there was alcoholism, mental illness and incest (just like that, in that order) in the families of his friends, so he didn’t want them at his house but didn’t want to go to their houses either.

The last was a woman struggling with having grown up in an alcoholic home and having an alcoholic boyfriend and she listed taking anti-depressant meds and going to therapy as things she was doing to try to improve her situation.

For her, it seemed, nothing was helping her feel good enough to get out of bed or do the things she cared about, including the meds and therapy, but she was doing the things society had prescribed for “people like her.”

Psychiatric drugs and therapy are protocol even though they haven’t proven to have better results than, say, cooking and eating a meal with friends, playing tennis, or singing in a choir.

Well, I doubt they’ve ever been statistically compared.

When people call someone in their family “mentally ill,” what does it mean? The term mental illness has gotten out of control vague.

There is no way to prove someone does or doesn’t have a mental illness in the way it is referred to, so why don’t we hear people say, “There’s someone in my family who’s extremely challenging for me (and others perhaps)”? Why don’t we hear descriptions of the behavior, how people feel in response to it, and what concerns it brings up in an honest way where the speaker owns their own experience?

Using the term mental illness might seem like a quick and easy way to reach common ground with other people, for some, but it doesn’t give accurate detail, so people don’t know what is being referred to.

Since things like nail biting, leg shaking and restlessness are now becoming mental illnesses, it’s more important than ever to be specific in speech or writing about what we are referring to. Not long ago, homosexuality was a mental illness and currently premenstrual cramps and moodiness, gender non-conformity, and children or teens not obeying authority are all mental illnesses.

When someone describes a mentally ill sister, all we know about her is that her behavior has been stigmatized.

She is probably taking the label for the family (and society).

This is called the “identified patient”.

The other reason it’s problematic to use the term mental illness is that most people by now have been labeled with one (or more).

So those listening or reading are likely to feel alienated by the term.

People are questioning what it means more and more and it’s starting to sound old-fashioned to those with more multicultural awareness and understanding of mental diversity.

People are starting to see the political and socioeconomic factors that go into who gets that label, and who doesn’t.

In order to get insurance coverage for therapy, one needs a diagnosis of a mental illness.

Some may say, “But I’m talking about MAJOR mental illness. My sister is schizophrenic/psychotic.”

For one thing, “anti-psychotic” drugs have been some of the top selling of ANY pharmaceuticals in this country, so it’s important not to underestimate how many people have MAJOR mental illness labels.

Most importantly, though, even in cases of extreme diagnoses, and extreme behaviors and situations, people will not know what you mean unless you describe it.

Using a label is stigmatizing, so it is more powerful and clear to say what is actually going on; then others can understand, connect and empathize with a unique situation.

When I hear labels used, I have to talk myself down, remind myself that not everyone has been studying mental diversity for the past 15 years and not everyone investigates the language they use.

This talking myself down takes time and during that time there is a disconnect between me and the one using a label.

It’s similar to if you are listening to a white person make racist comments or use the word “nigger” or a heterosexual use the word “faggot” or a man “bitch.”

A close family member has struggled with substance addictions and extreme mood swings for as long as I can remember.

Another family member once said to me, “I think your (family member) is bipolar.”

I was in my mid-20′s and it had never occurred to me to label this family member.

This could be because she was high on the social totem pole: she owned a nice house, made plenty of money, was very active in life and had an extroverted, yang personality.

Perhaps I had never thought to label her since she had labeled me and I was the one in the family to be stigmatized for awhile.

The term bipolar would have served to stigmatize her but not clarify, heal or deeply explain any of her behavior, its roots or how it affected me (or others).

Since I experienced and still experience a lot of agony, pain and fear (as well as joy, love, nurturance and comfort) in response to her behavior, labeling her might feel like retaliation, or it might give me a chance to put the stigmatizing lens on her after she’d (unfairly) put it on me.

But it wouldn’t be honest. She could get that diagnosis as readily as most people who’ve gotten it, but it’s a low blow.

It’s dehumanizing and lacking love and empathy to resort to a label.

I recently asked a friend who hears voices (and has gone through quite a bit in the mental health system, gotten diagnoses and taken psychiatric drugs in the past) if her parents label her. She replied, “They love me too much to label me.”

Enough said.

The first time I heard someone labeled schizophrenic I was at Prospect Park, on a walk with my mom.

I was about 10 years old.

A man was talking to himself and appeared to be homeless and perhaps on drugs.

My mom, a very good teacher and explainer of things to me, said, “That man is schizophrenic. That means he can’t tell the difference between what’s inside of himself and what’s outside.”

In retrospect, as many of the things my mom said to me as a child, this seems like a relatively sophisticated and sensitive explanation.

I can appreciate her intention, looking back.

My mom studied psychology in the 70’s and gave me a version of the description she had learned.

She, like many, assumed herself qualified to diagnose someone schizophrenic after less than a minute of observation.

There is no blood test, brain scan or any other reliable diagnostic procedure to diagnose what we call “schizophrenia.”

While, of course, anyone who sets foot into a psychiatrists office is likely to be suffering in extreme ways, schizophrenia, in fact, does not exist.

Meanwhile, it is the mental health label that many people, even skeptics, think is the only real one.

Often times when I mention that it does not exist, I see the light bulbs go on in people’s minds and they become visibly awakened.

Their eyes light up, they look relieved, and they have a lot to say!

The truth about the man we saw in the park 20 years ago: if he had been given a home, good food and help sobering up, he likely could have seemed “normal.”

The truth about getting an actual schizophrenia diagnosis from a psychiatrist is that many people get it either after or during a recreational drug experience or spiritual breakthrough/psychic opening.

People who tell a psychiatrist they “hear voices” can get the label, regardless of what hearing voices means to them.

Prophets, religious people, mediums, and ordinary folk have been hearing voices from beyond since the beginning of recorded history.

Nearly all religions document these experiences.

Hearing threatening voices is often a result of trauma.

In either/any case, there is no cookie cutter “schizophrenia”-everyone who gets the label has a different experience and needs to be seen as an individual-not as a category.

This is obvious for nearly every other diagnosis, so why does society, even those radically inclined, have a blind spot about this one?

Since there is no uniform physical basis for this label, giving everyone who receives it a similar class of brain damaging drugs -neuroleptics- is wrong, and fails to help most people.

What it does do, if someone identifies with the label, and their community identifies them with it, is makes them a lifelong outcast and sick person- both from the debilitating effects of the drug, and the identification with a label that scares people.

Please, for the sake of humanity, don’t use the word schizophrenic to describe anyone.

Tell us what you mean instead-and if you don’t know enough about someone to say what you mean, please just admit it.

If you had a bad drug experience or a trauma or heard a voice from beyond, would you want to be ostracized as a schizophrenic?

Would you want to be made sick for life?

If we go back to my mothers definition (which is one of many vague definitions of schizophrenia)-not knowing the difference between what’s inside of ourselves and what’s outside, and look at the things that make life worth living, they all put us in that category.

Falling in love, hearing music that enters our heart, having children/giving birth, connecting powerfully with another person in a meeting of the minds, feeling empathy, deeply caring about something, experiencing oneness with nature, are all examples of times when the line between inner and outer reality is blurred.

This is how we achieve what we value most in life-connection.

There are extreme cases where the blur between external and internal reality can be torturous, or so strong that one may shut down and disconnect.

Let’s remember, though, that everything starts as an impulse to connect, which requires inner and outer realities to merge in our hearts.

Hearing voices from beyond is cornerstone in my life and is the source of nearly every success I’ve ever had!

Another question that arises is: Why do we often glorify recreational drugs use but not what we call “schizophrenia?”

People often take recreational drugs, whether occasionally or regularly, to experience a more extreme version of merging inner and outer realities-and sometimes receive profound insights from these experiences.

I’d venture to guess that we view the “schizophrenic” as alone, dysfunctional, and unable to relate with others.

We see how s/he has been ostracized, yet the ostracizing takes place mostly after the diagnosis is given.

The diagnosis, in essence, creates the disease.

It allows us to simplify the questions in someone’s life and say, “Now we know what’s wrong with them.”

Recreational drug use, on the other hand is more likely to be associated with social life, community and togetherness.

But when we use the label schizophrenic, do we know any more than before?

If curiosity about a person closes off, we know less.

We also have no potential to learn more.

Intelligence is a responsibility and a gift.

Using mental health labels puts a dam in the flow of that river and its power to heal and transform us all.

An anti-anti-stigma campaign

The whole anti-stigma campaign is something of a joke.

Google the phrase “mental health stigma,” see for yourself.

Mental health labels are inherently stigmatizing, yet the industry that was responsible for creating and perpetuating them, simultaneously pours money into anti-stigma campaigns which will come up right away on your search.

They tell us not to stigmatize people who take psychiatric drugs for these labels.

While I agree, as a politically correct (sometimes), compassionate (sometimes) person who aspires to be humble (mostly), stigmatizing anyone for anything can be hurtful, there is a fine line between an anti-stigma campaign and repressing discernment in the general public.

Is it possible to stigmatize actions but not the people who take those actions?

In theory, yes.

In practice, inconclusive, but we must not allow the anti-stigma campaigns to cloud our judgment, silence us, or tell us to accept everything, every behavior, everyone being on psych drugs, etc.

It is fishy that the same people who created the stigma to sell their products are now demanding we not stigmatize people for using their products.

They are basically saying, “Don’t stigmatize people who are bringing us such immense profits. We must protect the oblivion (in some cases) of our customers so they will continue to generate income for us.”

In this case, perhaps a bit of stigma (or better words: discernment, non-acceptance, intolerance) is better than repressing those things.

What if cigarette companies/Big Tobacco ran anti stigma campaigns?

Much of advertisement is actually some form of an anti-stigma campaign.

Advertisements for all things unhealthy have beautiful, healthy looking people in their ads to promote their products and give the message that by using them (even cigarettes, alcohol, candy, etc) you will also be beautiful, healthy and stay forever young.

Pharmaceutical companies, of course, do this too, featuring happy looking people to sell their products.

The irony is this creates stigma against being human and having sadness, difficult emotions and grief.

Having natural emotional reactions to life is stigmatized but if you get a mental health label and “take your medication” you suddenly have a whole group of comrades to defend this anti-stigma campaign with.

You have a place in society now, that is being guarded by those who profit.

At least there are guard dogs fending off the stigmatizers.

At least you’re not that sad, “depressed” person in black and white in the anti-depressant ad.

We can stigmatize her in our ad-until she takes our drugs.

Then she’s safe from scrutiny.

Then we’ll shame you for suggesting there may be a better way and the drugs may be doing more harm than good.

Is stigma, in this context, a dirty word for caring?

Let’s all stop being so intelligent and stop using our brains!

Let’s sit in front of TV all day smoking cigarettes, eating GMO snacks, drinking Pepsi, popping Benzos and let our party line and dying words be “End the stigma,” when the real stigma was the initial one.

The real stigma is the stigmatization of our humanity-unlabeled, free and wild.

The real stigma is against sensitivity, intelligence, introversion, feelings, grief, creativity, uniqueness, brilliance and pain.

How’s that for politically correct?

People who commit to accepting their feelings and nature make far worse consumers. They are much less likely to buy or get addicted to your products. So you’d better keep stigmatizing them if you want to stay afloat Pharma!

Trivial Pursuit

Whoever decides the rules of the game can, of course, design it so they will win, if it’s trivia.

In mainstream trivia, many are allowing and accepting of the fact that the trivia games they play have rules that have been decided by someone they have little in common with.

When our lives feel empty, these trivial games can “fill the emptiness” in countless cult-like ways whether through gossip or fetishes of memorization (of any group of characters/labels/”facts” etc).

There may be many real reasons for our interests, but reducing them to trivia (guess what) trivializes them.

Realizing that every cult or sub-culture has its form of trivia (including spiritual traditions, branches of medicine, academic subjects, groups of friends, families, etc) can point us back in the direction of real life, which is about not only digging deeper into that which has been trivialized, but studying the things that don’t make it into the trivial sphere.

Whatever group of people you are in, notice what and who the trivia includes and does not include.

This will point you in the direction of social justice and personal integration.

If any race, gender or class predominates the trivia you discuss with your friends or cohorts, challenge your group to study other groups.

Trivia topics aren’t empty until they become trivia-at which point we are no longer thinking for ourselves, but rather regurgitating back what we’ve been told similarly to how we did it in school.

Knowing the names of people, places, songs, movies, actors, gurus, writers or diagnoses does not equal an understanding of their meaning and if you fill your mind with the accumulation of “facts” that have been told to you by a trivializing culture, of course that culture will tell you you are very smart.

In order to liberate ourselves from this rat race to “know,” we must as individuals retreat from the cult to some degree, at some point, and find our own answers.

Knowing trivia can help connect us with others and the basic concepts they hold, but this should be a stepping stone rather than a tired destination.

When it becomes a destination, we become very boring people, so bored we have an insatiable addiction to more trivia.

And this boredom that trivializes (out of shame and fear) is at the root of all addictions.

Psychiatry and Psychology use trivia in their cult.

When human experiences become categorical diagnoses to study and memorize, they are boring trivia, as well as harmful.

I once went to a Smith College School of Social Work classroom with 2 other members of theFreedom Center to teach on our activist work and share our experiences in the mental health system.

We waited out in the hallway for them to finish playing “Mood Disorder Jeopardy,” where you can probably guess they had to name the disorder label that went with an oversimplified, medicalised and stigmatizing description of normal human experience.

This is a perfect example of our most meaningful, vulnerable and important life experiences being literally trivialized.

The benefit of this awareness whether in psychological, spiritual or mainstream circles is that seeing through this trivialization brings relief.

Every one of us experiences suffering due to trivialization, and seeing it for what it is brings us directly back to what matters, our actual experiences, especially the ones that don’t fit into the Jeopardy squares.

All trivia is in jeopardy, as our stories, idols, gurus, diagnoses and mythologies are constantly changing. If it doesn’t fit into a Jeopardy square, it might have a chance of providing meaning to the evolution of our communities.