Gun Violence Must End, But Not By Throwing People Into The Mental Health System
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(Editor's Note: The reponse by President Obama and states like New York to the Newtown school massacre includes a larger government role in treating people judged as mentally ill. This is the very personal account of a 30-year-old woman who is a "survivor" of the mental health system and urges caution.)
“And so what we should be thinking about is our responsibility to care for [our children] and shield them from harm and give them the tools they need to grow up and do everything that they're capable of doing, not just to pursue their own dreams but to help build this country. This is our first task as a society, keeping our children safe. This is how we will be judged. And their voices should compel us to change."
- President Barack Obama, January 16th, 2013 [Transcript]
As a child, I was full of life, and lucky enough to grow up in an era of minimal household technology; thus, I learned to find solitude in the outdoors, in books, in puzzles, and in being alone. Videogames were strange to me; I’d much rather find real adventures in the woods with my dog. The thought of a computer in the house, let alone in my hand twenty-four hours a day, never once crossed my mind. I was allowed to watch one television show during the week— ‘Full House’, on Tuesday nights— and on Saturday and Sunday mornings, cartoons; I couldn’t have cared less, really, as I much preferred to lose myself in the pages of a book.
I looked at the future as a path of infinite possibilities, and I felt big feelings, thought big thoughts, and dreamed big dreams. Blessed with an endless imagination, I daydreamed about all that I could be when I grew up— a marine biologist, or an architect, or an orthopedic surgeon, or the first professional female ice hockey player. I was given space to bumble about in my childhood, making mistakes and learning along the way. Even in my most painful moments, later on, when I was desperately uncomfortable in my skin, confused about my identity, and feeling isolated from family and friends, I intuitively knew that I belonged in the world, and to the world. I didn’t know it in my mind— indeed, as I reached puberty, my thoughts often made me feel more alone— but I felt it in my heart, and it emanated from me, driving me forward with clumsy, awkward childhood determination. You see, until the age of fourteen, I had a right to all of these things: to feel my human spirit, to own my body, my emotions, and my mind. To own the right to define myself.
With twenty-twenty hindsight, I see today that I was “safe”, “taken care of”, and “shielded from harm” in those years, even when it didn’t feel that way to me. The pain I felt was the pain I was meant to feel, the pain that all human children feel, the pain of growing up in a confusing, scary, complicated world. Although I didn’t always believe it, I was making my way through, figuring my life out, until suddenly, everything changed.
I was 14, and it was decided that my worrisome behavior, intense mood swings, constant door-slamming, screaming, and raging had crossed a line. I don’t blame my parents an ounce for reaching this conclusion; I was troubled, and it scared them. I caused a tremendous amount of distress in my family, and the tension had reached a breaking point. Even the guidance counselor, headmistress, and some of my friends had their concerns, as my problems were spilling outside of the confines of my home. I was a livewire. I was unpredictable. I was hanging out with the “bad” girls, smoking cigarettes, cutting my arm with razors, shutting myself up in my room. I was no longer the ‘old Laura’, no matter how much it seemed like I still had it “together” on the playing field or in my schoolwork. I was spiraling out of control, and it was decided that something had to be done.
Enter my first psychiatrist, who diagnosed me with “Bipolar disorder” and handed me prescriptions for an antipsychotic and an antidepressant at the end of our first fifty minutes together. On the surface, it seemed to everyone else that the session was full of hope—for answers to the questions, for solutions to the problems, and for a path to “safety”, “treatment”, “care”, and “protection.” From where I sit today, sixteen years after I first entered that psychiatrist’s office, I am fully aware of how those few seemingly small decisions— trying out a family therapist, who happened to suggest I get a consultation with a psychiatrist, who happened to be a doctor particularly fond of Depakote and Prozac— sent my life drastically off-course, away from its once safe and secure, albeit painful road, and into something I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest nightmares.
My parents did what millions of American parents have been taught to do: they saw how much emotional pain I was in, and they sought “help” for me in the “mental health” system. They had no idea that my entrance into a psychiatrist’s office as a young teenager would end up stripping me of my health, my hope, and my sense of Self. Today, we are able to come together as a family with forgiveness, acceptance, love, and gratitude, to talk about how counterintuitive my journey into a system of proclaimed “healing” ended up being; indeed, as the result of being “shielded from harm” by the “mental health” system, I experienced more harm than I could have ever imagined for myself. I’ll list just a few examples:
• Physical harm: loss of menstrual cycle; loss of libido; Lithium-induced hypothyroidism; hormonal imbalances; gastrointestinal issues; acne; weight gain; chronic headaches; akathisia; lethargy; insomnia; food allergies
• Cognitive harm: short-term memory problems; inability to articulate myself effectively; inability to retain information while reading; lack of concentration; distractability; word-recall issues.
•Emotional and Psychological harm:hopelessness; racing thoughts; suicidality; suicide attempt; inability to feel an authentic sense of Self; constant numbness, detachment from my emotions and the world around me; loss of creativity; impulsivity and recklessness; apathy and listlessness; inability to feel emotionally bonded to my family, friends, or significant others; feeling permanently “other”, broken, different, abnormal, diseased.
I write these examples— which barely scratch the surface of my experiences— with absolutely no self-pity or self-victimization. I feel no resentment towards any person or institution, nor do I feel any regret for the way my life has unfolded; instead, I feel a deep sense of gratitude for the thirteen years I spent oppressed by the “mental health” system, because those years of darkness and disconnect have made me all the more appreciative of and connected to my life and my human spirit, which is, today, free from psychotropic drugs and psychiatric diagnoses.
The "Mental Health" System
Entering the “mental health” system as a kid stripped me of the right to grow up as just another human being— to learn how to trust my gut; feel my feelings and move through them; connect with others in meaningful, unmediated ways; have confidence in myself; and strive for my dreams. I was separated out of society under an oppressive force disguised as “care”, classified as “other”, and physically, psychologically, and emotionally altered by psychotropic drugs. All the systems of my body— particularly my endocrine, lymphatic, immune, reproductive, and nervous systems— were prevented from developing naturally, as was my mind-body-spirit connection. I came to believe that I would never be like everyone around me because of my “condition”, and that I’d need to “accept my limitations” and “set realistic goals for myself.” I spent hour after hour in therapy, growing increasingly more self-absorbed from talking only about myself and my problems, and I lost the ability or desire to be of service to the greater good. How can sending any child into this be seen as “shielding them from harm”? How can increasing “mental health” treatment in schools, which will inevitably lead to more psychopharmaceutical drug prescriptions, produce any of the goals President Obama is encouraging us to strive for?
Imagine my experience replicated millions of times, and you’ve just awoken to our ever-expanding American reality. As Robert Whitaker writes in Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America(2010), there was a fortyfold increase of “Bipolar” diagnoses in children between 1995 and 2003— I was first labeled “Bipolar” in 1997— which coincided with an increase in the prescription of antidepressant and stimulant drugs and an expanding inclusion criteria for the diagnosis, including reclassifying childhood irritability, agitation, distractability, and increased energy as a sign of ‘mania’. “Mental illness” diagnoses and use of psychotropic drugs have continued to accelerate in thie under-eighteen population, despite black-box warnings of increased suicidality in children on SSRI antidepressants, and billion-dollar fines for civil and criminal charges against pharmaceutical companies for off-label use and failure to report safety data, as documented in a 2009 truthout report and a more recent article on a controversial Paxil study of children [Paxil was one of nineteen psychotropic drugs I was prescribed between 1997 and 2010]. In addition to these rapidly increasing rates of diagnosis and prescribing of children, one in five adult Americans already take at least one psychotropic drug.
Never before have I sensed such danger percolating around me; the pressure is palpable, and rapidly intensifying in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy. Indeed, last month’s massacre has unquestionably become American society’s tipping point; just what, exactly, we are now accelerating— or freefalling— into is hard to believe. Just as I felt compelled to write a response to the viral blog post, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother”, I feel the same sense of urgency as I write these words. I ache with sadness and fear for post-Newtown America, but unlike the collective fire of emotion that’s been stoked by our government and media, the fear I feel is not in response to the American obsession with guns, or to the blank stares of Adam Lanza, James Holmes, and Jared Loughner, who have come to symbolize “untreated mental illness”, which is undoubtedly one of America’s greatest mass delusions. No, I am not afraid of violence in the name of harm— the kind that’s been driven throughout human history by hate, intolerance, fear, greed, arrogance, and jealousy. That violence is reprehensible, tragic, and painful to think about, but it doesn’t paralyze me with fear in the same way a different violence does.
The violence I fear most is of an insidious nature, hidden under the guise of “First, do no harm,” and perpetrated by a system spewing false promises to “care”, “treat”, and “heal.” When I let my mind wander to the places usually associated with the darkest parts of American history or science fiction— surveillance, mass social control, torture, and eugenics— it’s hard to accept that pinching myself does nothing. Science fiction and the most shameful parts of our past have become today’s undeniable reality: legislation is currently being pushed to pass “mental health” registries that strip those labeled “mentally ill” from the right to bear arms; to encourage, or even require, providers to report to authorities any mention of harm to self or other by their clients; to strengthen “Assisted Outpatient Treatment” laws or bring them to states that currently don’t have them; to ramp up funding for “mental health” screenings in schools so that “problem” children can be filtered out and given the “treatment” they need. Indeed, Big Brother is watching us.
Slow Down With Profiling Who Is mentally Ill
President Obama claims that we will be judged by how well we shield our children from harm, and by how supportive we are in helping our children to follow their dreams and build this country. He tells us that we must ensure our children’s safety, and listen to their voices. I urge him, and every legislator across our nation, to also listen to the voices of those of us who are lucky enough to have escaped the “mental health” system. Countless psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers tried to “shield” me from harm and in doing so, took me further and further from all those things that President Obama wants for our children today. For all their best intentions, they removed the tools I was accumulating to build a life for myself; they extinguished the spark that got me excited to grow up; they led me to believe I needed them in order to get through my day, and that I needed bottles of pills in order to be an acceptable teenager.
In forty years’ time, today’s psychiatrically labeled children will be dying twenty-five years early because of long-term psychotropic drug use. Disability rates due to “mental illness”, which have already skyrocketed in both under-18 and over-18 populations, will be at exponentially high and entirely unsustainable levels. I hope it doesn’t take this avoidable, completely self-inflicted mass catastrophe for us to acknowledge the grave harm being inflicted upon our brothers, sisters, and children deemed “abnormal” and thus unworthy of full citizenship and amendment rights. With American society’s readiness to embrace these proposed governmental measures to grow the “mental health” industry, one can only imagine that the pharmaceutical empire will become an even mightier beast than it already is, holding the government, the media, the education system, and the health care industry under its thumb, spellbound by the false belief that “mental illness” is a biochemical condition requiring psychotropic drugs [for more on this, see Psychiatry’s Grand Confession].
There are many of us who’ve come out the other side of long-term psychiatric “treatment” and lived to tell the tale, and our stories contain more science than any Pharma-funded research trial, academic journal article, or television ad. We are not Scientologists, we are not conspiracy theorists, and we are not quacks. We are the evidence, and we speak the Truth because we’ve been through it ourselves. Please listen.