Last week when I opened up the Sunday edition of The Baltimore Sun, I read an op-ed piece written by three psychiatrists entitled “Haunted asylums are a Halloween staple: Does the fictional gore undermine psychiatry’s good?” The authors emphasized the point that rendering psychiatric treatments as horrific and damaging and “demonizing” patients who need treatment could deter those who need it most. But I had to take issue with their point about electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), a procedure where a doctor administers a current of electricity strong enough to induce a grand mail seizure, is “brief, still, and quiet.”
Because both my mother and I experienced ineffective treatment and overmedication for depression and chronic pain, I have spent the past twenty years trying to figure out what happened to us. Putting those pieces together involved reading research about psychiatric treatments, including the use of antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and ECT. And contrary to what many psychiatrists will tell you, the treatments are largely ineffective at best and can be very harmful at worst.
You can read the version of my essay that the Sun published here: “Forget Field of Screams: Psychiatry has more than an image problem.” But while they included references to a few of the studies I referenced, they did not include them all. In the interest of using evidence to support my claims, I’m publishing the fully referenced version of my essay here. Hope you find it interesting, and for more on my journey as a former depression sufferer, my own experiences with psychiatry, and my complete recovery, read my new memoir, Crash: A Memoir of Overmedication and Recovery.
Psychiatry: There’s a Lot More to the Story
In response to the three psychiatrists’ letter regarding the demonizing of psychiatry by using old asylums as places to terrorize visitors looking for a Halloween scare, I offer a more skeptical take on the current treatments one is offered by modern psychiatry. As someone who has experienced depression and anxiety in the past and watched friends and family members suffer, I am well aware of the serious nature of emotional distress issues, and I am in favor of evidence-based treatment. But for many people, the treatments run counter to the latest research, are ineffective at best, and sometimes even harmful.
One of the main problems plaguing modern psychiatry is its overreliance on the biological model of mental illness, often simply referred to as the chemical imbalance theory. Yet prominent leaders in the field have disavowed this theory, though many in the general public have not gotten the word. For example, Dr. Ronald Pies, psychiatrist, of SUNY Upstate Medical and Tufts Universities, denies the chemical imbalance theory that modern treatment is based on: “In short, the ‘chemical imbalance theory’ was never a real theory, nor was it widely propounded by responsible practitioners in the field of psychiatry.” And lest you think Dr. Pies is exaggerating, you could consult the latest research By Dr. Joanna Moncrieff et al in which shows that there is no serotonin imbalance in the brain.
Despite its leaders disavowing the theory of a chemical imbalance causing emotional distress, psychiatrists routinely prescribe “treatment” consisting of drugs that purport to correct a chemical imbalance—which we now know does not exist. And recent research states that antidepressants only work for 15% of the people who take them. Few, if any, doctors mention the horrors of sexual dysfunction, sometimes permanent, that afflict many people who take psychiatric drugs. Most people who watch TV have heard the litany of the more common side effects of psych drugswhich include insomnia, sedation, constipation, headaches, weight gain, blurred vision, tremors, and seizures.
And if you try two or three drugs and your doctor deems you to be treatment resistant .…meaning the drugs don’t work for you…then your doctor can administer an electrical current strong enough to induce a grand mal seizure. Electroconvulsive therapy [ECT] is a serious and harsh procedure by any measure, despite Drs. Phelps, Mutalik, and Appell’s assurance that ECT is “brief, still, and quiet.” Even so, recent literature reveals that for 50-70% of people who receive ECT relapse within two to four months and some as soon as four weeks. The doctors mentioned above fail to inform readers that harms from ECT can include permanent memory loss, brain trauma, and even brain damage.
We may be removed from the horrors of the “Field of Screams”, but research shows us that many of psychiatry’s current treatments, far from being precise and effective, are often deemed futile at best and potentially very harmful at worst. Given that many recent studies show that exercise is as effective as antidepressants in treating most cases of depression, shouldn’t patients be offered the least harmful method of treatment first? And after reviewing many of the harms that are possible with the use of antidepressants and ECT, let’s consider the results of National Institute of Mental Health study concluded about the course of untreated depression: “If as many as 85% of depressed individuals who go without somatic treatment [drugs, ECT, and other treatments] spontaneously recover within one year, it would be extremely difficult for any intervention to demonstrate a superior result to this.”