Wednesday, October 27, 2010
In late April or early May 2003, I was in San Francisco for six days of the American Psychiatric Association's annual meeting. Two or three days into the conference, as I was making my way across the street from the north complex of the Muscone Convention Center to the south, I came upon an organized demonstration of psychiatric survivors brandishing "Psychiatry Kills" and similar signs.
Their personal experience certainly justified their outrage against psychiatry. An earlier generation was subjected to the horrors of captivity in state institutions. A later generation experienced a different type of abuse in the form of the bad practice of medicine, often applied in a not so subtly coercive "take your meds and shut up" environment.
But I was here to find out what was going on inside the Muscone Center, not outside. I waited till the marchers passed, then made my way to my next round of listening to very smart people talk real fast in dark rooms.
I heard more from the psychiatric survivors a few months later in the form of a challenge to the APA, NAMI, and the Surgeon General issued by six individuals associated with MindFreedom, including its founder David Oaks. Robert Whitaker picks up the account in the last chapter of "Anatomy of an Epidemic":
Among other things, the MindFreedom group asked for evidence proving that major mental illnesses are "biologically-based brain diseases" and for any evidence that "any psychiatric drug can correct a chemical imbalance" in the brain.
The six individuals threatened a hunger strike unless one of the organizations served up the evidence. The APA through its medical director wrote back that "the answers to your questions are widely available in the scientific literature, and have been for years," then suggested a textbook and the Surgeon General's 1999 Mental Health report (which ironically stated "the precise [etiology] of mental disorders are not known").
The Six went on their "fast for freedom," which lasted till medical complications broke out. Then they issued a press release stating that the APA, NAMI, and "the rest of the psychiatric community" were indifferent to those "who would deny that serious mental disorders are real medical conditions ..."
According to Whitaker:
It was clear to all observers who had won this battle. The strikers had called the APA's bluff, and the APA had come up empty.
I'm glad Whitaker saved this account for the last chapter rather than the first. Otherwise I would have tossed his book in the trash. Clearly - unless you subscribe to Thomas Szasz - the biology of the brain influences behavior. We think with our meat (thanks, Terry Bisson, for the metaphor). We feel with our meat. We perceive with our meat. And when our meat malfunctions bad things happen. It doesn't matter what you call it, bad things happen.
If psychiatry is stupid, then the antipsychiatry response is equally, if not more spectacularly, stupid. You don't fight stupid with stupid. If gay activists had been in denial about a mysterious phenomenon that was decimating their population back in the eighties, there would have been minimal funding for HIV/AIDS research and treatment. In fact, at the very beginning of the epidemic the gay population was in denial. Then they got smart. They got loud. They literally intimidated the government and medical establishment into action. In 2009, the NIH allocated $3.19 billion for HIV/AIDS research. By contrast, research for depression (including bipolar) was a mere $402 million.
Million, not billion. These are ratios that have held fairly steady over the years. Approximately 1.5 million individuals in the US are affected by HIV or AIDS. About 19 million in the US in any given year deal with depression or bipolar. That translates to the NIH spending $2,013 per patient for HIV/AIDS research vs a paltry $21 per patient for depression and bipolar. Putting it another way, for every dollar the NIH invests in an HIV/AIDS patient, depression and bipolar patients get one penny.
One penny. That's the value the government and medical establishment places on our lives, in large part based on the stupid and in-denial showboating advocacy that Whitaker so enthusiastically endorses. No, Whitaker, no one "won" that battle. We all lost, bigtime. If the loudest in our midst are denying that mental illness exists, then why fund its research and treatment? Obviously the people responsible for funding things have asked themselves that very same question. Don't get me started.
Next: Too late, you got me started ...
Previous blog pieces:
The Study Psychiatry Wishes Would Just Go Away - Part II
The Study Psychiatry Wishes Would Just Go Away
Is the Cure Worse Than The Illness?
The Whitaker Controversy: An Irony in Search of Nuance
If Meds Work as Well as Our Psychiatrists Tell Us, Why Do We Have MORE Mental Illness Today Rather Than Less?
RIP: Chemical Imbalance in the Brain