Adam Lanza couldn’t have killed twenty children without access to lethal weapons. But the rage that led to a massacre might never have been triggered without access to lethal drugs. As the British psychiatrist Dr. David Healy has said: “psychotropic drugs of pretty well any group can trigger violence up to and including homicide.”
Alongside the emerging debate on gun control in America, another conversation on mental health is also unfolding. Unfortunately, much of the latter conversation is poorly informed and based on false assumptions, namely that the primary weakness in the mental health system is lack of universal access, and that when mental health care is available, it is effective.
There is a popular view that the crucial factor in averting mental health crises that end with catastrophic consequences, is that the patient must stay on his medication. Drugs make dangerous people safe and so long as they keep taking them, the rest of us having nothing to worry about — that’s the idea.
Since 1997, when the FDA opened the floodgates, Americans have been exposed to a massive amount of direct-to-consumer advertising from the pharmaceutical industry — a form of advertising that is illegal throughout the world except for in only one other country, New Zealand. One of the principal results has been to make psychotropic drugs into the most profitable sector of the drug market. As a trade magazine trumpets, “Psychiatric drugs: a booming business.”
Not only has advertising helped boost sales of these drugs, but more broadly it has served to indoctrinate the population at large into believing that whatever problems an individual might be experiencing, a remedy can be found in the shape of a pill. The marketing directive — ask your doctor if Seroquel/Lunesta/Zyprexa/etc is right for you — has become a such-repeated formula that it has won well-deserved parodies. Nevertheless, this kind of advertising works and has been highly effective in conditioning us to believe that mental health is now all simply about tuning brain chemistry with psychotropic drugs.
Whereas it was once more commonly understood that the healthy formation of a person involved parenting, education, acquisition of social skills, nurturing social relationships, and the development of self-knowledge — a life-long process — nowadays people and their problems are being reduced to brains and their imbalances. Problems in families and in societies are reduced to problem-children — children who can be ‘fixed’ with a suitable cocktail of drugs. And by offering a quick-fix alternative to the real work of crafting collective pathways to sanity, the pharmaceutical industry has turned a huge profit.
An example of the dangers of a drug-dependent approach to mental health was laid out in a PBS report last year on the medication of foster children. Powerful anti-psychotic drugs that were once only prescribed to adults are now being given to children, less for the benefit of their health than as an expedient form of social management. Kids are being confined in chemical straightjackets. But as one mother says of her adopted son who she has nurtured back to a full life, “he needed understanding, not Depakote; he needed empathy and an ear and a shoulder to cry on, not Zyprexa.”
(If the video below won’t play, go to the site where it was originally posted.)