Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Robert Whitaker: Dangerous in America - Part II

Yesterday, I reported on Robert Whitaker’s dangerous tendency to play fast and loose with the facts in support of his own agenda. This worked in his 2010 book, “Anatomy of an Epidemic,” which I was largely supportive of despite my strong reservations over the way he misrepresented the studies he relied upon to make his point, not to mention his unpardonable cheap shots fueled by his profound ignorance in areas he proved too lazy to research.

Nevertheless, the strands of his argument held together, and his concerns matched our concerns. Essentially, Whitaker had made a strong “case to answer” that our meds may bring on the very conditions they are supposed to prevent. Nearly two years following the publication of his book, in the absence of psychiatry failing to answer his case, I concluded two months ago that “Whitaker stands as the most authoritative voice on psychiatric treatment.”

I strongly urge everyone to read Whitaker’s book, discuss it with your friends, do your own research, and reach your own conclusions. The life you save may be your own.

In his last two posts on his blog Mad in America, however, Whitaker appears to have lost touch with both the facts and the people he purports to serve. As I reported yesterday, in a piece posted on Jan 12 Whitaker egregiously misreported the facts of an NIMH-funded study in support of his own idiosyncratic white whale hunt.

But who has time to fact-check Whitaker? Especially those willing to take him at his word.

Nevertheless, one of his own readers smelled a rat. In a comment to his post, Don B noted “his approach to the whole problem of mental illness comes off as the outsider who knows it all about what he has never personally experienced.”

Don’s post is long and involved, but the gist of it involves his resentment over Whitaker thinking that “he knows what is best for me. If he is politically correct, he wouldn’t dare tell a woman that he knows how it feels to get raped or to have a miscarriage. But like many others, he does not shrink from telling those of us with mental illness what choices to make.”

As if to prove Don’s point, in his next blog post Whitaker makes the bizarre and totally irresponsible claim that the NIMH is advancing some kind of eugenics agenda. I'm not making this up. It's actually in the title of his post, that reads in full: "The Taint of Eugenics in NIMH-Funded Research Today." Apparently, NIMH research is warped from the outset, and Whitaker's proof for this is a repetition of his nonsense from his previous post about no miracle cures in the last 30 years.

In Whitaker’s own words:

[NIMH head] Insel’s list tells of a research enterprise devoted to identifying what is genetically wrong with the “mentally ill.” As the history of eugenics reminds us, that is a pursuit, unless it is handled with great care, that can engender bad social policy and a great deal of harm.

Right, Whitaker, and President Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya ramming European socialism down our throats.

Okay, Whitaker, reality check: There is something wrong with us. Profoundly so. Otherwise, I would be employable. Otherwise, a dear friend of mine would not have thrown himself in front of a train. Otherwise a friend from my past would not have shot himself with a gun. Otherwise, someone I know would not be sitting in a prison cell as I write this. Otherwise, otherwise, otherwise ...

Do you think mental illness is a fucking picnic, Whitaker? I know you have done a lot of talking, but have you actually done any listening? Do you actually know what it’s like when you can’t get out of bed in the morning? When the mysterious force inside your head that is keeping you there is every bit as strong as all the gravity Newton could ever contemplate?

Shut up, Whitaker. I’m not finished: Do you know what it’s like when your brain goes on strike? To be clinically dead but breathing? Or to experience a psychic pain so intense that, yes, the one way out - the unthinkable - is the totally logical choice?

Or maybe it’s the other way around. Your brain runs away from you. Suddenly, you’re thinking and feeling and doing all kinds of crazy shit. Try living inside of my head for one second of that, Whitaker. I dare you to write your stupid shit after that.

Wait, there’s more. The finger-pointing, the ostracism, the social isolation. That’s right, Whitaker, when something goes wrong - yes wrong - the people around us do not exactly respond with the same forbearance as Father Damien in a colony of lepers. And there we are, our lives in ruins, left to pick up the pieces.

And - oh, yeh - our families, our loved ones, our friends and colleagues. For one second, Whitaker, can you even begin to imagine what mental illness does to these innocent bystanders?

One day, Whitaker, we should sit down and have a beer together. Then I can tell you all this to your face.


Gittele said...

Hi! I was just wondering what Whitaker's position on the question of existence of mental illness actually is. Does he, like Szasz and activists such as Mindfreedomvirginia at , maintain that mental illness doesn't exist since as a concept it's utterly unintelligible? Like the notion of a four-sided triangle for instance. Or does he believe it exists, only it's over-diagnosed and treated with ineffective and highly harmful methods/drugs?

John McManamy said...

Hey, Gittele. He is dangerously close to the nonsense the nihilist fringe spouts, and he clearly panders to this crowd. His associations with Mindfreedom are public record, as is his uncritical support of their party line.

He does believe mental illness exists, but it is clear he is clueless about its devastating effect.

His critique of psychiatry is informed and valid and validates our concerns. But in order to sustain his critique and his livelihood his writings have entered the realm of the irresponsible.

kimbriel said...

No, Gittele, since I have actually sat down with Whitaker, I know that his position on the concept of mental illness isn't extremist. He actually believes that there could be some biological basis for it, especially in some people.

Gittele said...

Thanks very much for that to both of you. I found it rather confusing when I'd listen to his talks as he never seems to make his own position on this matter clear enough.

Gianna said...

John...what you say about Bob is completely untrue...he understands mental illness and the devastation very well...and is concerned that the treatments used today make it worse.

I know Bob very well...what you're saying seems libelous to me actually and it kind of pains me as well.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Gianna. Thanks for your comments. All writers need feedback from their readers. We ignore readers at our own peril. This cuts two ways: You are welcome feedback for me. Mr Whitaker needs to interpret my last two blog pieces as welcome feedback.

Here is a question for you: Do you honestly believe - as Whitaker writes - that the NIMH research is tainted with eugenics?

I didn't think so.

Hopefully, as someone who knows Whitaker very well, you will challenge him on this. You will tell him, for his own good, that he cannot spout this kind of nonsense and expect unconditional support from people living with mental illness.

You have followed my reporting on Whitaker's Anatomy of an Epidemic. I don't expect everyone to agree with my analysis, but I think you will acknowledge I made a good faith effort to present his talking points to my readers. Despite a lot of misgivings about how he presented the facts, I was supportive of his book.

I also burned a lot of bridges in my unambiguous condemnation of at least one of his self-appointed critics, Alan Nierenberg of Harvard, in particular, whose behavior I characterized as "sick."

You know me well enough, Gianna, that when I criticize Whitaker I am not just making things up. You may take issue with the conclusions I draw, but you know I have my facts right. Yes, these last two posts make very painful reading. I can't even begin to relate how painful it was for me to write them.

Whitaker went way over the line. No one else is fact-checking Whitaker. I sincerely wish someone else was. This job sucks. It's a waste of my time. It exposes me to hate mail and no end of stress.

There is way too much party line, ideological purity thinking in the entire mental health community, be it psychiatrists or those who are critical of psychiatry. Everyone is expected to step into line, accept uncritically the party line, or join the "other side."

People forget - at all times our getting well and staying well is the real issue. It's not about what you or me or Whitaker or Nierenberg think - it's about the person who could be or brother or sister.

We are smart enough not to hero-worship psychiatry. We also need to be reminded not to hero-worship others who claim to speak on our behalf. Skepticism is our best defense.

I honestly have no proof that Whitaker understands mental illness and its devastation. I don't see this in his writings. The last chapter of Anatomy supports the view that mental illness has no biological basis. His entire book cheap shots those who have been devastated by mental illness in their families.

It's right there in his own words, Gianna. If you are Whitaker's friend, you need to talk to him. I know these issues concern you, too. You know exactly what to tell him.

Gianna said...

I am unfortunately stranded on the road right now...I'm traveling to get medical care to treat the gross and devastating illness I have...the illness that psychiatric drugs caused.

I'm stuck in a hotel because I'm too sick to keep driving. I've been seriously ill for many years now.

Anyway...I'm not in any shape to argue with you now...far sicker than usual, but I came upon you PERSONALLY bashing Whitaker...and so I said something.

anyway...maybe when I'm well enough to get home (hotels suck when you're very sick...all you want is your home) I will come back or contact you otherwise...but frankly I'm tired...very very tired and the only reason I do my blog now is that I am still mostly homebound and have nothing else to do...

I'd really like to move on...

in any case, Bob is fighting for me and all those like me and you are misunderstanding him. That is all the energy I have now.

Peace to you. I don't hold your opinion against you, by the way...I just know you don't have all the facts and that you are reading into what he writes about eugenics...he didn't actually say some of what you said he said.

also this fight has many fronts and no one can cover all at all know that, I'm sure.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Gianna. I understand. I sent you a private email. Please feel free to contact me. I promise - no fighting.

Corinna West said...

I know Bob too and he does truly believe emotional suffering is real and that there are many ways to help, including careful, sparing and judicious med use. Yes, indeed, we are ostracized and separated from society, I just wrote a poem with this line in it.

..."We be people people with little greed because we've overcome poverty. It's the lesson we learned as we watched our future get burned. So now we build a new one. Sharies stories, vision, finding new wisdom in our excision. From society, that allows us to see anyone who bleeds. Comapssion? We take action. It's the massing of our movement, asking civil rights completely congruent. With our human worth. We see people in crisis as just giving birth....."

Here's my summary of problems with genetic research.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Corinna: "With our human worth. We see people in crisis as just giving birth." Love it!

One day I know we'll meet up at a conference or an event. You will have your poetry. I will have my didgeridoo. I'm serious.

Unknown said...

As someone "diagnosed" with mental illness and on SSDI as a result of being prescribed multiple medications, I feel the need to speak out. Robert Whitaker's book saved my life. At one point, I was prescribed EIGHT medications for "Bipolar Disorder" and "Generalized Anxiety Disorder." I put these things in quotes because I no longer accept them as valid. I have had symptoms of anxiety and depression since childhood. I also have underlying medical conditions that are at the root of such symptoms, including food allergies, sleep disorders, and a thyroid imbalance. I struggled through life for years without knowing the cause of my symptoms. When my son was born, ten weeks early (weighing 2 lbs, 11.9 ounces), my anxiety and depression went through the roof. I begged my doctor to test my hormone levels; instead, I was but on Paxil. My symptoms were identical to Postpartum Thyroiditis, but no one checked my thyroid. I was saddled with the Bipolar label...and medicated into a stupor. I was a Special Education teacher. When I lost my job in 2009, I was taking about 5 medications at the same time. Within a year, I was put on three more. Wellbutrin, Lexapro, Lithium, Lamicatal, Klonopin, Depakote, Trazedone, Adderall...who could possibly function with so many medications? Not me. I got worse and worse. I read Robert Whitaker's book in the spring of 2011, after weaning myself off Lithium. It was the first book I was able to read in ten MONTHS. I was horrified to recognize the truth of my own experience in his carefully researched work. I am now off all medication and finally able to think straight.

Friend, I am sorry you struggle with what I know to be hellish conditions. I continue to struggle myself. I understand your rage, to an extent, because I felt the same way. Something is wrong and it is intolerable. And to hear someone criticize the medications...well, we feel like they are our only hope. But the truth is that the medications DO NOT WORK. Your anger is valid, but misplaced. Robert Whitaker is not saying that "nothing is wrong" or that you should "snap out of it." He is simply unraveling the truth, which is that medications are brain-disabling and that humane care in a supportive environment is worth considering. I believe that there are underlying PHYSICAL conditions that must be uncovered in order for us to many people (myself included) need help in coping with patterns of behavior and thought that do not serve us well. Robert Whitaker is NOT the enemy. He is a hero in my eyes. I hope that you are able to sort this all out, because you are merely killing the messenger.

Corinna West said...

I had to look didgeridoo up. I didn't know if it was PG rated or not. But it looks sorta like a flute.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Corinna. I'm a big advocate of the didge and drums etc in mental health recovery. Most didges are approx 4-foot long pipes that produce resonant drones and vocal rhythms. The didge is an excellent meditation aid, particularly for people with racing brains like mine. It also activates the relaxation response (thanks to the exhale being longer than the inhale - straight out of the yoga playbook). Plus a million other beneficial effects.

New Agers use it extensively for chakra balancing and cleansing.

I play my didge in drum circles just about every weekend. Next weekend, I'm going to a didge gathering out in the country. I've also played it with Native American flute, chanting, chimes, harmonica, oboe. I'm very serious about wanting to hook up with poets. I've viewed your poetry videos. My didge and your poetry would go great together.

I'm looking forward to putting my own didge videos together, and when I do I'll let you know. In the meantime, should you come across any didge players - and I know you will now that it has come to your attention (it always works this way) - well, enjoy the didge experience. :)

John McManamy said...

Hey, Corinna. I accidentally posted this earlier today on a different thread. Here goes:

Hey, Corinna. I neglected to get back to you on your piece on genes you posted on WordWorks. I generally agree, but with this proviso. The gene research is coming in loud and clear on our vulnerability to stress. It's all about the environment. Our genes influence how we react to the stuff around us.

So the traditional gene research looking for mental illness genes is highly suspect. But stress is complicit in depression, anxiety, psychosis, etc.

Also, epigenetics - which is all about switching on and off genes in reaction to environmental influences - now appears to be the main event (till we find another main event).

Take home message - yours is the same as mine: Work on our stress. Think of ourselves as being vulnerable to stress rather than simply having mental illness. Work on our vulnerability with every recovery tool we can, with all we've got, and maybe we start turning our lives around.

I'm really glad you're getting the word out ...

Gianna said...

on the subject of epigenetics I posted this documentary:

I think it leaves one with more questions than answers but as I said there, it's a good little intro.

To suggest Bob doesn't know anything about epigenetics is another one of your close to libelous claims. I really don't undertand sliming someone you've never met as you've done (and have continued to do since this post). It's really hard for me to understand what you're going for here...and as a journalist it's downright irresponsible.

Genes are not deterministic...though environment in conjunction with some genes can be (to some extent...neuroplasticity suggests one can again change it)...that's one hell of a development in my opinion...

David Swann said...

Reading this post was really quite startling, this is my first post in the 'Blogosphere', because it scares me half-to-death. You have profoundly mis-understood that which about Whitaker was written. Once again he was giving heed to the same scientists that have gotten the treatment have mental ill-health to where it is now.

I was pronounced as having a 'broken-brain' in 1980, [Dsm-III, APA 1980]perhaps then I ought to discontinue writing because of that pronouncement?

You mention Obama, and the 'birthing' issue in your post. What your own wrong-headedness most reminded me of was Presidential Candidate John McCain, shaking his head, in utter disbelief, when an atendee at a rally said Obama was of Arab descent. McCain shook his head and said into the microphone "No Ma'am" and defended his opponent very robustly. I would like to do that: I haven't read anything so profoundly wrong-headed in years. I too would say you were skating on thin legal ice, This is not mere critique: it is slander.

Like some of the posters on here I am glad to have Whitaker writing for us. I have been in the revolving-door system of mental health for over twenty years. When you say that Whitaker has not experienced mental health and therefore cannot write in a robust fashion about it, you are silencing a vast tranche of non-fiction writers and almost all fiction writers; is that what you would wish to do?

To indicate that Whitakers' work should largely be invalidated because he has been spared psychological problems is profoundly, horribly, naive. Have the read the work Of Professor David Healy?
A practicing psychiatrist who lives in the UK, as do I, perhaps the most trenchant critic of 'med-check' psychiatry and the 'biobabble' that has become the lingua franca of present day psychiatry. Should his studied and scholarly work equally be ignored as he has no document psychiatric malady.

It is because of Healy that 'antidepressants' have the UK equivalent of a 'black-box' It is because of Healy that GPs in the UK are instructed not to prescibe 'antidepressants' as first-line therapy for mild-to-moderate depression. These are astonishing triumphs, yet Healy, as mentioned, has no history of psychological disorders. Should we then lose the ground we have gained? I do not think that we should.

Some of what you have written is amongst the most profoundly disturbing things I have read about mental ill-health in those twenty years, from any source. I will perhaps continue to periodically read your blog. But I will do so to counter posts like the one you made.

We you have been gravely disserviced by the 'mental health' industry should more than almost any group of which I am aware heed the words of Santanyana: "Those Who Forget History Are Doomed to Repeat It".

John McManamy said...

Hi, David and welcome to Knowledge is Necessity. To address your concerns: You appear to be defending Whitaker by criticizing quack psychiatry and by praising David Healy.

I have no arguments concerning either quack psychiatry or David Healy. I have strongly attacked psychiatric conventional wisdom here and elsewhere. I have also cited Dr Healy for his work, and have held him up as a model for using the facts to open our eyes.

The problem is Whitaker is no Healy. He may say what we want to hear, and in our enthusiasm we don't check his facts. I have checked his facts. They seriously do not support the thesis of Anatomy of an Epidemic.

Nevertheless, he hit on just enough home truths for me to be conditionally supportive of him.

I urge you to take a look at the blog post of his that initiated my post. It is outrageous. It is a disgrace. The last thing we need is our recovery movement is mindless hero-worship and rigid conformity to party lines.

Anyway, I welcome your comments and encourage a spirited dialogue. But look at the reader comments on this page. No one - no one - has actually defended Whitaker by defending him point for point regarding the piece he posted on his blog.

Read his post. The NIMH "tainted by eugenics"? As I said, Whitaker is no Healy.