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FEATURES view archived features


Is our pill-popping society losing its mind?
Anne Stanton

Ironically, the first time Maddie Jones ever felt truly crazy was the time she took an anti-psychotic medicine.
Last summer, Jones (not her real name) didn’t have a job and went to bed each night, terrified that she might lose her Leelanau County home.
Jones was taking 300 milligrams of Effexor for depression — a high dose, but she still felt incredibly down. So she started seeing a renowned Traverse City psychiatrist.
“He started prescribing all these drugs, willy-nilly,” Jones said. “He’d say, ‘That didn’t work, so try taking two. Hmm, that didn’t work. Let’s try taking that other one.’ “Then came the week from hell. I was really bonkers. I felt I had to flee my own house. I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t eating. I was talking really fast all the time. I was way out of it. I actually took photos of all the drugs because I thought I was losing my mind.”
Jones asked another doctor to help wean her off from one of the two antidepressants, one of the two sleeping pills, and the antipsychotic, Seroquel. Now she’s on one anti-depressant and only one “sleeper.” She feels much better.
“I think there are psychiatrists who are legal drug pushers, and he’s one of them.”

IT’S PERSONAL
Ben Hansen, a passionate anti-drug activist, knows of stories like Maddie Jones all too well. Last week, he was on the phone with a foster care caseworker who suspected a boy died from a drug overdose. The child had developed a neck twitch — possibly due to psychiatric medications he was taking — and his doctor prescribed an ADHD medicine. Days later, the boy died. When the caseworker learned a reporter had been apprised, he quickly emailed that the cause of death was still unknown.
Hansen has spent the past eight years trying to sound the alarm over the nation’s deepening addiction to mind-altering medication.
For Hansen, the issue is personal. His quest began in 1999 after an involuntary confinement at Munson Medical Center’s psychiatric unit after he had admittedly lost touch with reality.
Hansen’s brush with the psychiatric world began with a no-sleep vigil at his dying father’s bedside over an intensely emotional three days. He reconciled with his father and experienced a profound, spiritual connection with God.
Hansen was elated and went home to rest. Hours later, he was called with news of his father’s death. As soon as he placed the phone on the receiver, another call came in with tragic news: a coworker had committed suicide.
Hansen didn’t sleep, and the next day, he heard voices and caused a disturbance on Front Street. He pushed his minister (who was trying to help him), and was taken to Munson’s Center One, given a shot, and diagnosed with bipolar disorder while he lay sleeping, despite no previous history of mental illness.
Hansen managed to leave Center One 39 days later without the requisite agreement to take prescription drugs for the remainder of his life. But it involved a bitter fight. The experience radicalized him, and he is now part of a national network of activists who challenge the culture of pharmaceutical drugs.
He also sits on the state’s Recipient Rights Advisory Committee, which is linked to the Michigan Department of Community Health. The committee’s mission is to help people receiving mental health services who have had their rights violated.

DRUG ESCALATOR
Hansen has launched a satiric website, bonkersinstitute.org, and reaches out to the media with his writing and research. But obviously his lone voice is lost in an ocean of money.
Drug companies spend $15 billion on marketing and rake in $200 billion in sales a year in this county. Pharma is our country’s most profitable industry.
Drug companies and company officials gave at least $17 million to federal candidates in the 2004 election. They also spent $158 million that year to lobby federal legislators and $7.3 million to support political party conventions, according to a USA Today article.
Thanks to advertising, the public at large has swallowed the Kool-Aid, and commonly pressure their doctors to prescribe a specific pill — “If you don’t give it to me, I’ll go to somebody who will,” Hansen said.
Taking an anti-depressant is how many folks first get on the prescription drug escalator. An anti-depressant often saps the sex drive. So you take something for that — maybe Viagra for an on-call erection. But then you can’t go to sleep. You take a sleeping pill. Problem solved. But now you’re in a bit of a fog and have problems focusing at work. You go online and diagnose yourself with adult attention deficit disorder. So you take Ritalin a couple of times a day.
Voila, you are an official drug addict.

PHONY FRONTS
Ads and political influence are pharma’s most obvious strategy, but its messages are also promoted by what appear to be good-hearted patient support groups, which are, in fact, supported and/or created by pharmaceutical companies (wemove.org, adultadd.com, nami.org and chadd.org are just a few of them).
The Traverse City Record-Eagle ran a forum piece last month by Mark Reinstein of the Mental Health Association in Michigan. Reinstein argued in favor of parity in health insurance — essentially requiring insurance companies to cover doctor visits and drugs that are related to mental health problems.
Most people see that as a positive change for the patients, but it’s also good for pharma. Health insurance is the quickest way to make people forget about their pocketbook.
Hansen later discovered that Reinstein’s nonprofit received $35,000 in the first quarter of 2007 from pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly for its “education and advocacy initiative to promote mental health insurance parity in Michigan.” These are the invisible ways that pharma influences our thinking, he said.
Hansen, on the other hand, said he submitted three letters and forums to the Record-Eagle, only one of which was published in 2000. “It was easier for me to express my opinion in the New York Times than the Record-Eagle,” he quipped.
He was referring to the front-page story about Eli Lilly setting up prescription Medicaid oversight programs in two dozen states, including Michigan (see story on page10).

THE GOODNESS OF DRUGS
There are two sides to every story, and the treatment of the mentally ill has about 30 times that many.
For those whose lives have been transformed with anti-depressants, Ritalin or an anti-psychotic drug, Hansen’s message can rub them the wrong way. Who is he to make a judgment call on someone’s personal decision to take a drug that makes life bearable and even joyful?
Jones said that despite her bad experience, she believes that they are useful when responsibly administered. “I started taking an anti-depressant 10 years ago, after my daughter was sexually assaulted. I was just crying all the time. I started taking Zoloft and found I could cope.”
Hansen is mostly unmoved when people tell them their success stories — how a new mom, for example, was able to cope with terrible post-partum depression or how one Traverse City man, who switched from Haldol ($14 per month), is now able to hold a job and easily converse with people thanks to his prescription for Zyprexa ($300 per month).
He doesn’t buy that millions of people have a “chemical imbalance” in their brains: “If there’s a chemical imbalance, then why is the list of side effects a mile long?”

MATTER OF CONTROVERSY
Traverse City clinical psychologist Greg Holmes confirmed that there is no known biological test for depression. “What chemical imbalances exist, and whether they are a cause or effect of depression is a matter of controversy.”
The rating scale that physicians use to diagnose depression is also controversial, he said.
“Many studies indicate there is little or no difference in response between depressed patients given an antidepressant, and those who receive a placebo. Interestingly, people who are depressed have also responded to many substances not classified as antidepressants, such as neuroleptics, barbiturates and benzodiazepines.”
Much of the research of antidepressants and their use in treating depression is also in dispute, in part, because pharmaceutical companies have funded the research themselves and are suspected of putting a spin on the findings, Holmes said.

THE NO-DRUG ROUTE
Holmes said that studies show that psychotherapy is as effective as medicine in the short-term, and has longer lasting benefits after treatment ends. Holmes is also a big proponent of exercise. “It has very powerful, mind-elevating effects.”
Studies also show that Omega 3 fish fatty acids, or fish oils that you can take in a gel cap are also “huge” in helping with depression, said Greg Chappell, doctor of chiropractic.
“And they’re also using mega-doses with schizophrenia and bipolar disease,” said Chappell.
Research shows that subjects who simply anticipate that they will receive antidepressants for their depression exhibit changes in their brain. “What all this leads me to conclude is that hope, offered in any form, is what many depressed patients actually respond to,” Holmes said.

OUT OF KILTER
Hansen rejects the “disease” theory of depression, attention deficit disorder, postpartum depression, and the myriad of other mental disorders. Our society is so out of kilter, that we call obesity a disease, instead of what it used to be—a “condition” that leads to certain diseases, Hansen said.
“If you consume 5,000 calories per day and your only exercise is walking from the sofa to the refrigerator, it’s perfectly natural to gain weight. But if you fail to gain weight, then I’d say, perhaps, you have some kind of disease.”
Hansen points to the “rodent test” that measures the efficacy of anti-depressants. Without any drugs, the rodent will swim around in circles until a certain point, and then stop. A rodent that has been administered an anti-depressant is more optimistic and will keep swimming around and around until it’s exhausted and drowns.
“Now who has a better grip on reality — those who are realistic or those who are artificially optimistic?”


THE ROLE OF SPIRITUALITY


Hansen believes people are really suffering from spiritual emptiness or profound stress from the hardballs that life throws, such as divorce or financial problems.
In fact, a new analysis shows that drug treatment may be inappropriate for people who are simply experiencing painful episodes. Counseling would be the most effective for these cases. The study said that the percentage of those diagnosed as clinically depressed might be inflated by as much as 25%, according to a study appearing last month in The Archives of General Psychiatry.
To be considered clinically depressed, you need only report five symptoms out of a constellation of symptoms for at least two weeks—tired, hopeless, or suffering from insomnia, for example.
But you don’t even have to do that with some doctors. One elderly woman went to an area doctor for a sinus infection. Knowing her husband had recently died, the doctor offered her an anti-depressant out of the blue. She never opened it, Hansen said.
If someone is told they are “depressed” instead of “sad,” or “anxious” instead of “scared,” they now think they have a medical condition, Holmes said.
“Instead we need to treat people with love and compassion, encouraging them to develop new coping strategies for the difficulties of life,” he said.
There is a sense that the tide of public opinion might be turning against chemical solutions. A reporter recently wrote in the New York Times Magazine about his odyssey to get off an anti-depressant — a very painful withdrawal that came with “brain shivers” (a side effect which the drug companies have not acknowledged) and insomnia. His pay-off — a sense of clarity and a depth of emotions, both of joy and grief, that he hadn’t felt in three years.
Hansen believes people mistake depression for a general malaise about their lives. “They tell themselves, ‘I have my perfect house, my perfect car, enough closet space.’ It doesn’t occur to them that they might be depressed because their life has absolutely no meaning.
“Psyche means ‘spirit.’ Our lives have a deeper meaning than to just acquire material possessions. We are spiritual beings with a soul, but the pharmaceutical industry would have us believe we’re nothing more than machines to be tinkered with by adjusting chemicals in the brain.
“Emotional and spiritual problems cannot be solved by popping a pill.  We need to stop labeling every unpleasant emotion and every unwanted behavior a disease.  Instead, we need to start listening to each other’s stories.  That would be a good start.”


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